For Annabeth, the strings are an enigma, an irregularity that she needs to figure out.
She's been able to see the threads ever since she can remember. All colors: green and blue and yellow and white and purple and brown, wound around her fingers, linking her to someone else.
Hers are the only ones she can see, though: try as she might, she can't see other people's strings, the way Rachel can; she can only see the lines of color going from her hand to the person she's connected to. It's frustrating at times, but she supposes that it's better than not being able to see anything at all.
Multiple strings of the same color are common; she's got three yellow, two green, four blue, one purple. She doesn't have a red string, the one that means true love. It's fine. Rachel's told her barely anyone has it, anyway.
Rachel is lucky. She's one of the only people Annabeth knows who can see everything: every string on everyone's finger, where it goes and who it connects to. It's fascinating. Annabeth isn't very social and she's got several strings on each hand; there must be at least a trillion more in the school building alone. It's a wonder, really, that everyone isn't tripping over them on their way to class.
The strings aren't physical, not exactly. They're only visible in person, so you can't see them through a screen or in a picture; she can look at and touch the ones circling her fingers, and they feel real enough, but beyond that they seem to fade into nothing, leaving her clawing the air and looking like a total dumbass. Once, when she was younger, she tried tugging on her first string, the yellow one around her pinkie, during recess, and Percy swears, to this day, that that's what ended up bringing him crashing to the ground, chin scraping against gravel. He burst into tears like the macho man he is, she laughed at him openly, and they've been friends ever since.
He blames her, of course, for how his jaw has never felt the same way. He blames her for a lot of things, come to think of it, but she knows he doesn't really mean it. It's just one of the perks of having a total drama queen as her best friend.
She's got yellow strings for Piper, too, and Grover, but their strings are more sunflower yellow where Percy's shines almost white. White means purity, right? That's how deep their friendship runs. They've known each other since preschool and live only a few buildings apart; Percy knows Annabeth's father and brothers well enough to call them an extension of his own family and Percy's mom has called Annabeth the daughter she never had on multiple occasions. So yeah, she and Percy are best friends and she loves him. They've known each other for more than half her life, and she likes to think that the string linking them together isn't like the usual strand she has for everyone else, but is broad like rope, not cut easily.
"Stop being stupid, all the strings are thin as hell," he protests one day, squinting at his hand. Annabeth can only see one string extending from his hand, the one linking the two of them, yellow like pollen, but she knows Percy can see more. He's told her he's got a few more yellow strings: one that links to Grover and one to Jason. His blue string connects him to Sally and Paul. No red strings. He knows who her strings lead to, too; they've got nothing to hide.
Percy can't see as much as her, though. He can see the strings on his hands, but he can't see who they lead to unless it's the same color on their end, too. Because sometimes the strings are like that. They tend to shift and change color, and just because a string is one color for someone doesn't mean it's the same color on the other person's side. The strings are...they're less of concrete facts and more like those rings that change color based on your mood. Only they're strings. Moodstrings.
They're stupidly easy to break, too. Annabeth hasn't tried, but once a person cuts off a string, they effectively cut that person out of their lives. Annabeth's dad did it to her mom's string that day she left using a pair of scissors. She doesn't know if he ever regretted doing it. It's none of her business to question why he did what he did, and besides, he's remarried now, with a new red string. Or so he says.
The whole red string business is...complicated. Some people get it when they're born, but some people just wake up halfway through their lives to find a new scarlet thread emerging from their hands, or see an old thread that's just decided to change color. It's the worst when they've already found someone, only to find out later that that person is not the one they're meant to be with forever. Somewhere inside her, Annabeth is actually happy she doesn't have hers.
"Yet," Piper always tells her. "You don't have yours yet."
Piper is nuts about the red string, probably because those are the only kind she can see. And it's terrible, because this means that Piper can literally predict the entire school population's love life, and she's extremely smug about it, too. Like this one time, when Annabeth saw a random couple making out by the lockers and sarcastically commented on how in love they seemed to be, Piper only replied with a sniffy, "Let's see." The couple broke up a week later: Piper's been bragging about it all her life.
She's got her own red string, though, which links to Jason; Piper freaked the fuck out when she first traced it and proceeded to devise a series of overcomplicated plans to get him to figure out who his red string lead to. Annabeth's sorry to say she was involved in over 75% of these plans, and she's even sorrier to say that the ideas actually worked. Kind of. Piper and Jason have been dating since sophomore year, and they're actually really in love, disgustingly so.
After that, though, Piper shut her mouth about everyone else's red strings. Says she was actually wrong about playing Cupid, and that she doesn't wanna interfere with the "natural process" of things. Annabeth was thankful for a few beautiful seconds before her best friend pulled her aside and promised to help her out, though, when the time came.
"Jeez," Percy snorts when she tells him. "She's nuts. I hope my soulmate is some nice nonseeing person who doesn't meddle."
"I forgot they were a thing," she muses. "Must be nice, not being able to see." She holds up her right hand. There are four yellow strings, three purple, one green. Percy nods, even though she knows he can only see the one yellow string, the brightest one that he calls his.
"I'm practically blind," he mutters. "I can see half my strings, but only my half. What's the point?"
"You can see my half of our string," she says, wiggling her pinkie. He grins, wiggling his own, then linking it with hers, the way they did when they were kids.
"Yeah, because it's the same color, but the rest..." He lightly touches his fingers; she can't see anything but she can imagine, well enough, the different colored strings he's plucking, like he's playing the guitar. "It's so weird not being able to see where all the other ones lead to."
"I thought you liked surprises."
"I'd prefer for them to get here a little faster," he says.
She only exhales, tugging at the strings unconsciously. Percy shifts a little when she pulls his. "Don't do that. It feels...weird."
"Yeah?" She pulls at it again. "What's it feel like?"
"Asshole." He sighs, eyes fluttering shut. "And I dunno. It's like...you're calling me, or something. Maybe the strings also do, like, an SOS thing. Like if you're being kidnapped, you can pull the thread and I can come help." His gaze grows serious. "Seriously, though, do that."
"You're being stupid." She laughs at his expression. "Okay, Percy, if I'm in mortal danger, I'll pull the damn string."
"Thank you." He pulls at his. "Feel anything?"
"Not a damn thing." She dodges the weak punch he aims at her shoulder.
"Concentrate," he grumps, and so she tries. He yanks the string, and she closes her eyes. The feeling is extremely faint, the smallest of pulls that she feels in her chest. Even if she wasn't sitting right next to Percy, she gets the feeling she'd know he was calling, or at least thinking of her.
"Eh," she decides, opening her eyes. Percy smacks her in the arm, grunting, "I hate you."
"I mean," she says, "I get it. How can you feel it so, uh, much? That's, like, some red string bullshit. Maybe you should ask Piper about it."
"She'll tell me it's the beginning, and follow me the entire year, waiting for a string to change color," he says, chuckling a little and running a hand through his hair. "And since senior begins tomorrow, yeahhh. I'm not telling her."
She snorts. "Smart. For once."
"For real, though." He sighs hopefully. "I feel like this is the year."
"I can feel it, Annabeth." He smiles, eyes shining. "This is the year. I'm gonna make it the year I get my soulmate. And you'll get yours, too."
"I...don't really care," she begins, but at the look on his face, she adds, "but yeah. Uh, go for it."
And maybe it's fate, maybe it's not, but the first day of senior year, Annabeth wakes up with a red string coiled around her finger, shining like the sliver of a rose petal in the 6 AM sun.
"Shut the fuck up," is the first things she says. Her voice comes out as almost a yell into the silence of the morning, and she shoves her face in her pillow at once.
"Jesus," she breathes. "Jesus."
Lifting her head out of the pillow, she sneaks a peek at her hand again, and yep, there it is, the one red string on her pinkie, scarlet like the thinnest stream of blood. "Jesus." She covers her face again with a groan, because why. Why why why why. She doesn't want a stupid red string, she's fine with all the ones she owns. Percy's the one who wants a red string, give him the red string—
She squints at it, suddenly uneasy. She quickly counts the strings on her right hand, but for some reason she can't seem to remember how many threads were there before. She grits her teeth, trying to figure out if the red one is new or an old one that's changed color, but when she can't figure it out, she ends up throwing her pillow at the floor in frustration.
"Annabeth?" her dad calls. "You okay?"
"Fine," she calls, forcing her breaths to even.
"It's the beginning of the end," he laughs, as Annabeth enters the hall and presses a quick kiss to her father's cheek. He smells like toothpaste and coffee, and he's already dressed for class. His glasses are a little askew, so she straightens them for him.
"Can't wait for it to be over," she admits. "But it's also kind of sad."
"Endings are always like that," her stepmother smiles, handing Annabeth a steaming mug of coffee, and when she reaches out to flatten Annabeth's bedhead, Annabeth lets her. She hasn't gotten a blue family string for her stepmom yet, but she'd like to try.
"Where are Bobby and Matt?" she asks, grabbing one of her father's oatmeal cookies and taking a huge bite. Her stepmom chides, "Frederick, I told you to wake them up—"
"I tried," her father pleads.
"Going," he says, before standing up and heading down the hall; Annabeth follows him to her own room, where she takes a shower and gets dressed. Grabbing her bag and the sandwich her stepmom hands out, she walks outside, shivering slightly in the wind, and heads to Goode.
The school isn't too far away; she has to cross Percy's building to get there, where she sees Paul driving off in the old, familiar blue Prius, but Percy probably hasn't even woken up yet, so she doesn't bother calling. Piper texts her every step of the way, though, so at least she has a reason to stare at her phone and look busy all the way there.
From: Piper [8:30 AM]
From: Piper [8:30 AM]
ANNABETH DONT BE LATE ThiS IS OUR LAST YEAR TOGETHER I WANT TO MAKE THE MOSt OF IT
From: Annabeth [8:34 AM]
calm tf down omg I'm omw
From: Piper [8:40 AM]
I SEE YOU I SEE YOU
From: Piper [8:42 AM]
"Annabeth!" Piper squeals, running down the stairs to the main school entrance and throwing her arms around her, "Oh my god! Can you believe this is it? Can you believe—"
"I really can," Annabeth says, trying to pry her arm away.
"Cruel as always," Piper sighs. "It's just, I can't—" Her gaze drops down for a minute, and her eyes widen; Annabeth looks down at her hand, too, and winces. She'd forgotten about the stupid red string, and she'd forgotten that Piper would be able to see it, too.
"What the fuck," Piper says. "What the fu—"
"Shut up," Annabeth begs. "It's not that big a deal—"
"Not a big deal? Not a—" Piper huffs. "When?"
Piper looks on the verge of tears. "Oh my god, talk about a new start—"
"I will murder you," Annabeth warns, "and I won't even feel bad about doing it. Like, seriously, even if I go to prison, I don't care."
"My girl is all grown up—"
"I am a whole six months older than you."
"Let me have my moment here, Annabeth, gosh." She exhales, using a hand to brush her bangs away from her forehead.
"I thought you got a haircut," Annabeth says, glancing at Piper's dark hair, which looks just as choppy and unruly as it had been before summer break.
"Ah, but did I tell you who cut it?" Piper wiggles her hands in front of her face, and Annabeth sees the yellow string that extends to her own finger. "These babies took care of it."
"You're lucky Jason likes...weird things."
"I like how you demoted me to a non-living object." She shakes her head quickly. "And stop trying to change the subject! Annabeth, you have a red string! You have a soulmate! That's amazing!"
"Who does it attach to?"
"I don't know," Annabeth says. Then, narrowing her eyes, "Wait. Can't you tell?"
Piper's eyes shine brown and blue, but they look stricken. "No. I mean, it's really, uh, red on your end, but around there..." She points behind them— "it just kind of, uh, fades. And that doesn't seem normal."
"What does that mean?" She asks. "Like, is the person far away?"
"No, I mean, it isn't right. Like, lots of people have red strings that lead elsewhere, but none of them fade the way yours does." She lifts her hands up, then lets them drop down to her side. "It's hard to explain. Theirs fade into the distance, but I can tell it's still extending to something. Yours extends, then just, I dunno, stops."
"Oh." Annabeth glances at her string. "Well, maybe it's because it's early?" She shakes her head to clear it, then gestures up the stairs. "Plus, you'd better feel honored. You're the first person to know."
"Wow, that's new." Piper joins her, bounding up the stairs with far more energy than her. "Not even Percy?"
"I'll tell him at lunch, or something." She gazes up at the school building, large and gray and monotonous. "He's gonna be so jealous."
"Poor guy asked me once every month if he had a string," Piper smiles. "Even though he'd be able to see it anyway. I hope he gets one. For his own sake." She casts Annabeth a curious look, but before Annabeth can comment on it, her friend yells, "Leo!" and jumps on the scrawny guy the same way she'd hugged Annabeth outside, making him yelp in surprise.
"Our last homeroom together," Piper sniffles dramatically, dragging Annabeth and Leo with her; Leo mouths, Is she okay? and Annabeth whispers back, "I think she's high."
"I heard that," Piper grunts. "And forgive me for thinking that our first day of our last year in high school is of significance. I just think—"
"Oh no," Grover mumbles, walking up from behind them, "has she already started?"
"Yeah," says Leo. His hair is still messy from when Piper assaulted him by his locker. "She called Jason last night, too, and started crying about how it's the end."
"I can't believe he told you," Piper squeals.
"No," sniggers Leo, "I took a guess, but oh my god, Pipes, you must be the only person in the whole world who's sad about leaving school—"
"Juniper's in the same state," Grover mumbles sleepily, ruffling his hair and pointing at an auburn-haired girl gazing very sadly at the posters lining the hallway. "She kept blubbering about how this is the last year she'll get to be in Biology Club and how she'll never be able to study onion peels with us again—"
"Oh my god," Piper cuts in, holding a hand to her heart, "this is the last time we'll all study onion peels under a microscope together—"
"We're not even in the same class for Bio," Annabeth groans.
"Did someone cut an onion under your nose today, or something?" Leo grunts. "Would explain the random tears."
"I'm an emotional person, okay?" Piper says in a shrill voice. Then, looking around at all of them— "Ugh, I can't believe I made friends with the most skeptical, pessimistic, boring people in New York City—"
"Hey!" Leo points a pencil at Piper. "You take that back."
"I'm going to talk to people who understand me," Piper says in a resigned voice, and she stalks off to where Juniper stands; Juniper turns and goes, "This is the last year I get to walk down this hall!" and Piper cries, "I know!"
"I can't be this emotional this early," Reyna yawns, joining their little circle of skeptics; from down the hall, Piper calls, "Reyna, don't you think—" and Reyna goes, "No."
"You're the worst one!" Piper yells.
"I literally can't wait to get out of here." Reyna pulls about fifty books out of her locker, then stops, shrugs, and puts all but one back.
Leo mumbles, "What was the point, even?"
"Perspective," Reyna says.
"You make no sense." Leo squints at her. "Also, did you even comb your hair this morning?"
"Shit, is it that obvious?"
"There're leaves in it," Leo says. "Also what looks like breadcrumbs, which I don't even wanna know about."
"It's still less obvious than Annabeth's bedhead," Grover says.
"I tried," Annabeth says. "I really tried."
"I was just lazy," Reyna says.
"Hey," Grover says suddenly, "where's Percy?"
"Who the hell knows." Annabeth stifles a yawn as the bell rings. "He'll barge in halfway through homeroom and piss the teacher off—"
But he doesn't. It makes Annabeth antsy for a while, because her stupid red string is really bright against the paper in her notebook and it's like she can't write a single freaking word without it getting in the way, and she really wants to tell him.
She leaves for lunch with a sour taste in her mouth, because he hasn't answered any of her texts, either; her expression must be pretty pissed-off looking, because Jason actually moves his chair a little further from hers before asking, "Uh, what's up?"
"Percy's being dumb," she says.
"Oh, yeah. He overslept, and then slept again on the stairs when Sally kicked him out-" Jason grins at his plate. "He's on his way now, should be here in-"
There's a noise from off to their right, followed by a bunch of sorries, and then the sound of more cutlery clattering to the floor. Jason rolls his eyes. "Yeahh, that's him."
"You guys," Percy gasps, collapsing into the empty chair beside Grover; his hair is a total mess but his green eyes are still gleaming. Nobody even bats an eye at his sudden appearance, which speaks volumes about how many times this has happened before. "You would not believe this-" he begins animatedly, and he launches into a story that must be fascinating, because everyone in their little group begins to talk and laugh and argue, but Annabeth is frozen, fork halfway to her mouth, as she stares at the space between Percy and her. His hands keep moving as he tells his tale, but if she concentrates, she can still make out the yellow string on his finger, traveling across the table to her. Like normal.
Thing is, though, halfway, the bright yellow of the string darkens into orange, and then turns red, extending in her direction and coiling around her finger innocently, like it isn't implying that Annabeth's meant to fall in love with her best friend. Like it hasn't ruined her life forever.
Annabeth deserves a fucking medal for the poker face she maintained all day.
Because honestly? Inside, she's been screaming her head off the entire goddamn time. All through class, all the way back home (and Percy even walked back with her, which made the whole coping thing about 10,000 times worse), she couldn't hear a thing, because of her own internal screams of anguish, filling her usually-coherent thought processes with just a stream of AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH—
From: Piper [5:21 PM]
wtf happened to you after lunch omg
From: Piper [5:24 PM]
I KNOW YOU'RE READING THIS STOP AVOIDING ME
Annabeth buries her phone under the pillow with a huff of annoyance; it's bad enough that Piper knows she's got a red string without having to deal with the other girl's constant nagging. Sure, she means well, but Annabeth isn't in the mood to talk. She knows that she's going to have to tell her best friend eventually, but right now, she just needs time.
Time will help, she knows it. She needs time to think about what she's going to do. Figure out things, like her plan of action. Annabeth's great at plans. She excels at plans. Plans are her thing. She's not her class president and school treasurer for nothing, and let's just say that whichever paintball team she's on always wins, because everyone knows her strategies are top-notch. Annabeth can (most likely) devise a plan to get out of an underground dungeon with her arms tied behind her back: she can get herself out of this, too.
It's the worst feeling in the world, she decides, casting aside her SAT guide and flopping down on her bed facefirst like the deranged, confused teenager she is. It's the worst because now their whole friendship can't be the same. Because now she can't help looking at him differently, and she can't help wondering...things. It's the worst, because it frustrates her so, so much that the damn thing is, well, right.
They're not even strong enough at the moment to be called feelings, okay. They're...the beginning of them. Because she'd be lying if she said she hasn't thought about the idea of them — Percy and Annabeth, together — before. Sometimes, on movie nights, he'll rest his head on her shoulder, or she'll rest her head on his, and it feels...nice. Nice, and peaceful, and Annabeth can't help thinking that she wouldn't mind being like with him like this forever.
But it's wrong, she'd always told herself later. She's squashed the thoughts down, embarrassed that she'd even had them, determined to forget, until this happened, and now she doesn't know what to do about anything anymore. It's suddenly like every little bit of affection she'd ever felt for him — the kind of affection that's not a just-friends kind of things — has been amplified, thrust out into the open.
"Maybe I'm overreacting," she says aloud. Then she gazes out her window; she can see Percy's apartment building and just the thought that Percy's there it makes her heart do all kinds of crazy flips all over again. Ugh. She needs to calm down.
Her phone buzzes, and Annabeth gets it out from under the pillow. Piper's text says, Have you told Percy yet?
That's another thing to add to this entire mess, another knot in the rope. She can't not tell Percy, because, well, it's Percy. It's Percy, who has told her everything, who has told her about his first crush and first kiss and even the time he got kicked in the nuts by a goat at the petting zoo so hard that he'd peed his pants a little. He'd be thrilled to bits to know that she has a red string, even though she doesn't really want to know how he'd react to finding out that it connects to him. And, come to think of it, she doesn't really have to tell him, does she?
Because she's got to remember that dual-colored strings are a thing, and Percy's end had definitely still been yellow. He still 100% sees Annabeth as a best friend and nothing more, and Annabeth isn't going to let her wayward heart ruin all that they've built together.
She takes a breath, and finds that she feels calmer; she gets up, stretches, and then leaves for Percy's, typing a quick reply to Piper on the way: sorry, had a headache, which isn't an entire lie, and then, after a minute, she adds, I'm gonna go tell him now.
Percy opens the door on her third knock, and lets her in like he'd been expecting her. Annabeth is profoundly glad, for a moment, that he's the one to open the door and not his mother: Sally's like Rachel, and can see everyone's strings; she'd notice Annabeth's new one in about two seconds and Annabeth isn't ready for her best friend's mom to figure out just how pathetic her life is right now.
"Ughhhhhhhh," Percy groans, "I have practice tomorrow morning." He waits for Annabeth to sit cross-legged at one end of the couch before throwing himself next to her and shoving his feet into her lap. They've done this every single day of their lives, probably, but today she feels goosebumps prickle to life on her skin at the contact, and so she shoves his feet off. He lifts his head from the cushion and raises an eyebrow.
"Headache," she explains.
"Thank you," he replies, rolling his eyes. "That makes so much sense."
"Your feet smell," she snaps. "I can't breathe in your stink if I wanna recover—"
"You chose the wrong house, then." He lifts his feet to her lap again, and she's too tired to remove them, or maybe she just likes the feeling. It's all so confusing, ughhhhh.
It's quiet for a while; Annabeth sneaks a peek at him out of the corner of her eye and sees that his eyes are closed, hair flattened against the arm of the sofa. He's crossed his arms behind his head, so it looks like the yellow string is coming out of one ear: it drops to the floor, turns red, and makes its way up her arm. Fuck, she thinks, because it's so depressing.
"Hey," she manages.
He pops an eye open. She ignores the way her chest pangs when he smiles at her semi-sleepily, sitting up. "Yeah?"
"I wanted to tell you something." She turns to face him, letting her curls fall into her face. Good. If her hair can hide her eyes, let all of it fall into them for all she cares.
He laughs, a small exhale. "Figured."
"You've got that expression that means you're thinking something really important," he says. "Your eyes get all cloudy — like, even more stormy than usual — and you purse your lips and there's this huge vein that just pops on your forehead-"
"There's no vein," she gasps, feeling about her forehead worriedly, and then throwing a fallen potato chip at him when he laughs.
He dodges it. "So?"
"So." She laughs a little awkwardly. "This is...kind of hard to say—"
"Okay, then don't tell me—"
"I want to—"
"I'm just saying, if you need time—"
"I got my red string today."
It's silent, and enough time passes for Annabeth to feel uncomfortable. She rushes on, attempting to fill the quiet with words. "Today. Morning. Before I got to Goode. I have no idea why the hell I got it, I mean, I don't want it, but, yeah, and—"
"Who does it link to?"
Annabeth's heart just about stops. Percy's staring at her, unblinking. It's like being under a very green spotlight. She clears her throat, more violently than she expected, and then coughs out intelligently, "Huh?"
"You have a soulmate, Annabeth," he says, in a voice that screams duh, and Annabeth wants to hit him because it's not as easy as he thinks. "Who does it link to?"
"Nobody," she says quickly.
He rolls his eyes.
"Well, not nobody, obviously," she amends at once, and her eyes sting at the lie that is rising in her throat. "It connects to somebody, but I dunno who, because it just extends, like, really far away—" she points out the window - "into the distance. I asked Piper, and she said it's normal."
"Oh." He says; for a scary second, she thinks he's figured she's lying, but then the darkness in his eyes lifts a little as his lips lift upward into a small, but still very genuine, smile. "Annabeth, this is amazing."
"You should have gotten it," she blurts out, almost against her will. "You wanted a red string so bad, you deserve to find your soulmate more than I do—"
"No-wh-what the hell, Annabeth." He grabs her hands, which is when she realizes that they're shaking, red string quivering like a kite string in the wind, and he can't feel it, can't see it. And his voice is so emotional that it breaks her heart, because oh, she wants to tell him, she really does, she hates lying to him.
"Everyone deserves to have a soulmate," he says, squeezing her fingers, and all she can think is but I don't deserve you. She glances at their string, at the place where red meets yellow, and she glares at it, and it's at that moment that she vows that she's going to make things the way they used to be, or her name isn't Annabeth Chase.
It has been two weeks since school started and Annabeth is just about done.
Because she has tried everything, everything to try and force everything to return to normal; she's tried choking her feelings down, then dismissing them altogether. Neither plan works: she still wakes up every morning to see her stupid red string tangling itself in her hair. Red like drops of blood, like a stop sign. She hates it so much, hates how it seems to have brought her feelings for Percy out into the open, even though she's sure not many can see it.
And it sucks when it hits her just how long she's loved him. If she's really being honest with herself, she will admit that she had fallen for her Percy long before her yellow string changed color. But Annabeth isn't a big fan of introspection at the moment, and besides, that isn't the issue here.
"No, red strings don't usually change color again," Piper sighs, looking at her suspiciously. "Also, this is the third time you're asking me today."
"Is it?" she asks airily, hiding her desperation under a perfect smile.
"Is everything okay?"
"Fine," she says, stabbing at her heap of noodles with a fork. Piper frowns, but drops it, and, luckily, nobody else has paid heed to their conversation.
Okay, wait. Scratch that — across from her, Will Solace is gazing at her with something like sympathetic curiosity in his eyes, and, for some reason, it rubs her the wrong way. She avoids him all through lunch and their next class, where he keeps sending her texts saying he has something to tell her, but he finally catches up with her before she can make another speedy escape.
"So," he says conversationally, "interesting things you mentioned during lunch. Red strings."
"What about them?" she asks. "Also, you really don't know how to drop a topic, huh?"
"I've been told that that's one of my more charming qualities," he smiles. Then his expression turns more somber as he reaches out to grab her elbow, preventing her from leaving. "No, but really. I need to tell you something."
She wrenches her elbow free and rubs it resentfully, even though he hadn't really hurt her. She doesn't move away, though. "Can't it wait?"
He shifts uncomfortably. "I don't know how to say this. I mean, no. It can't wait. It's...I know something, and it's got to do with you, so—"
This both piques her interest and fills her with panic. "Okay. What is it?"
He exhales. "Your red string."
His blue eyes fill with pity. "I-I can see the strings, too, but it's different. I can see people's strings...but only if they're different colors." He waits for his words to sink in, then adds, "So..."
"So?" she continues, and then it hits her, and dread fills her chest, choking her lungs, making her ears ring alarmingly. "Oh."
"I'm so sorry," he pleads. "I mean, it's all I can see, all these stupid strings that are different colors for different people, and I didn't even notice yours till today at lunch, I didn't mean to look—"
"Will—" she tries.
"—and then I kept following your string and it turned, like, whitish-yellow and it led to Percy and I felt like such a dick, oh my god—"
"Will." Somehow, his wild expression calms her, and she feels the beginning of a giggle bubbling out of her. "It's okay. Someone would have found out eventually." She thinks about it. "I'm sure people like Rachel, who can see all the strings, already know. I'm lucky Rachel transferred out, because she would've told more people. And besides, it's not your fault you saw."
"I'll figure something out," she says firmly. Then she exhales, feeling her whole body slacken. "Wow. It's kind of nice that someone knows, though."
"Wait," he interrupts, "you haven't told—?"
"Percy?" She laughs, but it sounds bitter. "Are you kidding?"
"I don't know what he'd be," Annabeth admits. "Come on, Will. You can see his string. It's yellow, which means he sees me as his best friend. Nothing more. If I told him...I dunno. I just don't want to force him into anything, or make him feel obliged to like me, or anything."
Will opens his mouth to speak, then decides against it. "I get it."
"I do. I really do." He seems unable to hold back, now. "I-I'm the same as you, Annabeth. I mean, I've got a red string, too, and, uh, the person it links to...it's yellow on his end. I—"
"I'm sorry." And it's genuine, because it sucks, it sucks so bad to be able to see, first-hand, that your feelings aren't reciprocated. Then she hesitates, because her mind's picked up a semi-vital detail from his statement. "His end?"
Will's entire body stiffens, before he looks her in the eye with something like defiance. "Yeah. My red string links to Nico."
"Oh." Her cheeks heat up. "So you're—"
"Yeah." He shrugs. "I don't exactly broadcast the fact that I'm gay, but it's whatever. And—" He shrugs at her. "Seems only fair. Secret for a secret."
She doesn't know what to say to that. "Don't worry. I won't judge. And I won't tell anyone."
"Yeah, you didn't seem the type to." He smiles lopsidedly. "Thank you."
"Yeah, well." She pats him on the shoulder. "We're in this together now, right?"
He laughs, and there is actual happiness and gratitude in his gaze, making her smile. "Yeah. And Annabeth, if you ever need a friend—"
"Annabeth?" comes a new voice, and she turns to see Percy walking toward them. They're all alone in the hallway; it's been fifteen minutes since the final bell rang, she sees, and remembers, with a jolt, that Percy must've been waiting for her so they could leave together as usual.
"Shit, sorry," she says, "were you waiting long?"
"No, I just wanted to introduce you to someone." Percy's eyes flicker back and forth between her and Will. "What are you guys doing here?"
She ignores the accusation in his tone. "Nothing much. Just talking about the new assignment Clarke gave us."
"Yeah," Will chimes in. "Had us seeing red."
Annabeth can't help laughing a little at that, but Percy's expression closes off a little, and his eyes narrow slightly. "Um. Cool. So, Annabeth—"
"Yeah, coming." She glances at Will. "See you later."
"Yeah," Will replies warmly. "And, about what I said, about, like, if you ever need—"
"Definitely," she responds, with equal enthusiasm. "You, too."
She lets Percy lead her away, then; he is scowling as they round the corner to the main entrance. "What was that about? Didn't seem like just a math assignment."
"It was," she says.
He glances at her, green eyes colder than usual. "If you say so."
"I say so," she says quickly, throat feeling dry, "and who'd you want to intro—" She stops as they exit the school building, and a girl at the bottom of the steps turns and waves. Annabeth isn't sure what to do, what to think, until Percy grins and waves back; he turns to Annabeth with a radiant smile on his face and says, "C'mon."
Annabeth's heart sinks the closer they get to the girl, because holy fuck she is beautiful. Long caramel hair braided down her back, large brown eyes, and, from what she can see, minimal makeup, which is just ridiculous. Annabeth doesn't wear makeup, but that's because she's too lazy to actually even begin to attempt to figure out how to use lipstick and mascara and foundation. And as a result, she looks like total crap. This girl...she looks perfect. And it's the worst kind. The effortless kind.
Annabeth stops right in front of the girl, but Percy descends the extra step to stand next to her. Annabeth feels like her entire face is on fire, well aware that being next to someone that flawless is only making her seem dingy in comparison. Still, though, she manages a smile.
The girl smiles back a little nervously. Jesus, she's pretty. Annabeth should've combed her hair better this morning.
"Annabeth," Percy says, in a voice that's laced with warmth, "this is Calypso. Calypso, this is Annabeth, my best friend that I told you about."
"Hi," Calypso says. Her voice is soft and undeniably sweet. "Percy literally wouldn't shut up about you all through History. It's great to meet you."
"Nice to meet you, too." Annabeth extends a hand, and Calypso smiles and shakes it. "Are you new here?"
"Yeah," she admits, a little sheepishly. "Moved here four days ago, it's kind of crazy how...hectic it all is. I didn't know where any of the classes were, it was so embarrassing."
"She got lost," Percy explains to Annabeth. "She was looking for the cafeteria and ended up at Callahan's room, where he happened to be chewing me out for being late again, and so I ended up showing her around all day."
"Wow." Annabeth chuckles, but she glances at Percy again and her heart stops. His face is glowing, like he's a jack o' lantern, as he looks at Calypso. She'd recognize that expression anywhere. He'd worn it every day in middle school, back when he'd had a huge crush on a girl in a neighboring class. He keeps talking, grinning as Calypso giggles at his jokes, nudging her playfully as she tries a comeback of her own. Annabeth's smile feels fake the longer she struggles to hold it in place. She can't see the strings on Percy's finger, but she thinks that maybe now he has a red one.
"I should go," she says finally, interrupting Percy's tale. "Got that math assignment to work on."
"The one with Will?" Percy looks disappointed. "I was gonna show Calypso the closest cafes. Sure you don't wanna come?"
"Sure," she says. Then, turning to Calypso, "Please don't be turned off by the sheer amount of food this idiot can shove into his mouth. It's disgusting to watch."
"It's no problem," she laughs. "I'm starving. I feel like I could eat a whole food truck. Wheels and all."
"I'll take you up on that," Percy grins. He looks so in love that Annabeth has to look away.
"See you tomorrow, then," she says, waving her hand limply and turning away. Calypso waves back, but Percy's expression changes: his eyes seem to be saying, Isn't she great?
In response, Annabeth nods slightly, and Percy's smile broadens, like her confirmation is all he'd needed. He turns, too, touching Calypso's elbow lightly as he guides her in the opposite direction, and Annabeth walks home alone, feeling completely numb as she climbs the stairs to her house, greets her stepmom, and sits heavily at her desk.
She does not cry, but her entire body vibrates as she recalls Percy's expression, the way he'd smiled at Calypso, like she was the sun. Annabeth's been best friends with Percy for eleven years, and she's never, ever seen him this way, and it hurts so much.
Finally, she withdraws her phone from her pocket and types out a little message.
From: Annabeth [ 6:10 PM ]
remember when you said if I ever needed a friend
From: Will [ 6:32 PM ]
From: Annabeth [ 6:34 PM ]
well I really really need one right now
Predictably, Percy and Calypso begin dating three months later, and the guy can't seem to shut up about how great she is. Annabeth would be fine with this if she didn't happen to be the one Percy's gushing to.
"She made cookies," he says, with a dreamy smile on his face, handing Annabeth the box. Annabeth opens it. A faint aroma of, like, melted cocoa and butter wafts up to her nostrils and it's basically the best thing Annabeth's smelled in her life. Percy takes two cookies out, handing Annabeth one, and she takes a bite, feeling pathetic. The cookie is heaven. Fuck.
"What do you think?" Percy says.
Annabeth swallows a mouthful of crumbly chocolate goodness. "They're...great."
"Aren't they?" Percy takes another cookie, looking at the thing like he's in love. He probably is. Calypso is probably his red string, she thinks bitterly, and the sudden thought makes her mouth dry. She could ask. She should ask. Honestly, she needs to ask, because it's driving her crazy.
Percy sighs, leaning back on the sofa; from the kitchen, Sally calls, "Feet off the cushions!" and Percy says "Mmmm," but doesn't take them off.
"She should help Sally bake," Annabeth says offhandedly. "They'd keep you happy and fat for the rest of your life."
"Mom did offer," Percy smiles.
"What?" Annabeth sits up a little straighter, aware of her rapidly rising heart rate. "Calypso...she came over?"
"Yeah, brought her over last weekend." He blinks up at her. "Sorry, I assumed I'd told you."
Something in her begins to sting, painfully. "Well, you didn't."
"It's fine." She lets out a small laugh. "I'm not pissed or anything. It's just..." She can't say it. She can't say how she feels like she's begun to lose him already, so instead she lets out a breath and changes the topic. "So, Sally and Calypso got on well?"
"Yeah. Talked my ear off about baking and stuff."
"That's nice." Her own voice sounds sour. "Cal is really nice."
Which is the worst part. Calypso is, quite honestly, one of the sweetest people Annabeth's ever met. She's soft and kind and smart and pretty and talented. She's one of those people who are just impossible to dislike. She's a baker and a painter and she works part-time as a florist, so she always smells like flowers. She's fit into their little circle of friends with the utmost of ease, and Annabeth has never heard anyone say a word against her. She's so...so...good. So nice. It's no wonder Percy likes her so much.
Annabeth hates it. It makes her feel like the stinkiest pile of shit, because literally Annabeth has probably, in all her life, never rooted for someone to be an absolute jerk. At least if she was a total bitch, Annabeth wouldn't feel bad about disliking her.
And, the thing is, because Calypso is so freaking nice, Annabeth can't tell anyone except Will, who thinks her situation is both hilarious and also depressing as hell, but it's nice to have a friend in her corner.
"There are no corners," Will says when she tells him this. "Jesus fuck, Annabeth. No corners. We're all standing in a circle, holding hands. Circles don't have corners."
"Thanks for being in my sector," she says, grinning.
"Oh, good one," he says sarcastically. "Tha-that was great. A+ joke. It's a wonder Percy isn't throwing himself at you as we speak."
"Low blow," she says. Then — "he did like my sense of humour. Percy, I mean."
"Uh-huh." Will crosses his arms. "And I'm supposed to ignore the past tense?"
"Likes," she amends quickly. "Likes my sense of humor." At his skeptical snort, she droops. "Okay, I dunno. Feels like we haven't talked in awhile. Since Calypso."
"You think you're drifting apart?"
"Happens to everyone eventually." She shrugs. "It's like...whenever I see Percy he's with Calypso, and I don't wanna rain on their parade. Intrude. Y'know what I mean?"
"No," Will says. "Not at all. I practically jump on Nico every chance I get. You're much too noble for this world."
"That's a really nice way to put it," she says.
"Jump him," Will advises. "It's the only way you'll both get peace."
She splutters at this, almost snorting her cup of ice tea out of her nostrils; Percy and Reyna, who are crossing their path from the opposite direction, look at them weirdly. Reyna looks amused, but Percy just frowns, first at her, then at Will. Annabeth offers a friendly smile and a wave, but he averts his gaze.
She drops her hand. "See what I mean?"
"Woah," Will says, "He looked...jealous."
"You wish. I wish." Annabeth sighs a little wistfully. "Nah, he's just suspicious. He's figured out something's up with me."
"Yeah, because you flee every time you see him," Will points out. "You guys barely talk anymore. And this is from an outsider's perspective; he probably feels just how much has changed and he's worried about it."
"He's been texting me," Annabeth admits, getting out her phone and scrolling down her contacts. Will squints at the screen.
From: Percy [7:40 PM]
yo lotr on tv wanna watch
From: Percy [7:41 PM]
sent cal out to get ice cream like the hoe I am and mom's making pasta
From: Annabeth [7:45 PM]
nah it's okay you guys have fun i'm swamped af
From: Percy [7:46 PM]
but it's movie night! cmonnnnnnn what's more important than movie night
From: Annabeth [7:54 PM]
math assignment lol
From: Percy [7:54 PM]
the one with will?
From: Annabeth [7:58 PM]
From: Percy [7:59 PM]
From: Annabeth [8:03 PM]
sorry I can't come but it's chill you have fun with cal
"You blamed it on me?" Will shrieks. "No wonder he glares at me all the time now! He hates me! Because of you! Because you can't freakin' come up with a better lie—"
"I was desperate!"
"Oh my god, do you even know how scary he looks when he glares, oh my god, Annabeth, I swear to god—"
"I'm sorry," she pleads. "I just can't hang out with them like the saddest shit third wheel that I am—"
He sighs, softens. Rolls his eyes at her, then gazes at the phone again. "Forgiven, for now. Meanwhile, we've got more problems to deal with, though. You sound so salty here. You've got to learn to tone it down."
"What?" she protests. "I thought I seemed pretty normal."
"You sound so bitter. Have fun!" he trills. "I mean, I'd rather it just be the both of us, and, honestly, I would've come had your stupid girlfriend not been there—"
"Okayyyyy," she snaps. "I get the point. What do I do now?"
"Go to his place today," he says. When Annabeth begins to argue, he gives her a severe look. "You can't avoid him forever."
So Annabeth finds herself outside Percy's door that evening wearing an oversized sweater, perfect for an impromptu movie night, with a bag of chips in her hand, praying that Calypso isn't there.
Sally opens the door. "Annabeth! Darling, it's been a while."
"Lots of work," she apologizes automatically, stepping inside and offering her a tentative smile. She does a quick scan of the kitchen and hallway. No Calypso. Phew.
"Yeah, Percy mentioned it," Sally sympathizes.
"Is he busy or something?" Annabeth says, realizing, only now, that she hadn't texted him or anything before showing up. Fuck, she thinks, he's probably on a date, or something, I'm so stupid-
"He's cleaning his room," says Sally, and Annabeth finds herself sighing in relief.
"I'll go help," she says generously.
"By all means." She smiles at her. It's a knowing one that Annabeth can't quite determine the root of. Whatever it means, it makes her a little nervous, but she offers a smile back before walking towards Percy's room.
As expected, he isn't cleaning. "Annabeth?"
"Wuddup." She tosses the chips onto his lap. "Sorry I missed movie night."
"It's fine." He rips open the pack immediately. His voice is quiet, but she detects an edge to it that suggests he's really not that calm at all.
"I guess you and Will are hard at work," he adds after a moment.
Yeah, he's pissed.
"Sorry," she says. Seems like she's just apologizing these days. "It's worth a lot of our final grade. I wanna get this right."
He shrugs, not meeting her eyes, shoving his mouth with chips to avoid speaking. It's a good thing she brought it along.
"C'mon," she says, poking his knee; he yelps a little. "Would I ever miss movie night if it wasn't really important? I haven't missed one in seven years."
"I haven't missed one in ten," he boasts.
"I had a broken leg, Percy," she says.
"And I brought over The Lion King and we watched it in bed." He grins. "That was fun." Sighing, he finally offers her a wan smile. "I know you wouldn't miss it. It just...wasn't the same without you. And it feels like we haven't been talking as much. What with you and Will, and me and Cal—"
"Me and Will aren't...a thing. We aren't anything," she says quickly. "We just—"
"Oh." Maybe she's imagining it, but she thinks his smile grows a little. Who would've thought he would be this disgruntled by the idea of her and Will? "Yeah, I mean, a lot of people started asking me about you guys, but I was like, Annabeth would've toldl me for sure. And then I thought about your red string, and I dunno, I kept seeing you guys together, so I thought—"
"I'd tell you," she lies. It's only a second that she hesitates, but Percy catches it. His frown is back full force, and he opens his mouth and Annabeth knows he's about to say something that'll make her want to give in and actually be honest for once, but—this isn't something she can be honest about. So she says quickly, "I swear, I'm fine, don't worry about it," and deflects the conversation. "So, where's Calypso?"
She's lucky it works. "Doing some plant-a-tree thing with Grover and Juniper." Percy rolls his eyes, but the action is more fond than irritated. "She's already made me plant some weird flower-thing in my windowsill, look—"
Annabeth looks. The plant is small and seems to gleam silver in the dim light.
"It's pretty," she says.
"I'm not a plant person."
"Like, I literally kill every plant I touch."
"Shut up, it's sweet of her to think of you." Annabeth elbows him. Then, deciding that it's now or never, she tries — "But hey, you were right. You said you'd get your red string this year, and you did."
He stiffens, or maybe she's just imagining it, because then he lets out a small laugh and touches one of the silvery leaves of the plant. Gingerly, like he's trying not to damage it.
"I did," he agrees, after a beat of silence.
And her heart stops.
"I'm really happy for you," she gets out before the pause becomes too long to be normal. Her palms grow sweaty, and it's like she feels herself getting colder from the inside. Her voice is so strained, so, so fake, but if Percy notices that something is wrong, he doesn't show it, just smiles softly as he tweaks the leaf one last time and rests his hand on the pillow, inches from hers. She withdraws both hands to herself, hugging them around her chest to prevent him from seeing how much they're shaking.
There is less than five centimeters between them as they sit on his bed, but at the same time, the distance seems to grow.
From: Annabeth [10:45 PM]
are you haPPY I JUST WENT THROUGH THE MOST PAINFUL THREE HOURS OF MY LIFE
From: Will [10:49 PM]
From: Will [10:49 PM]
From: Annabeth [10:51 PM]
no i'm not talking to you
From: Will [10:54 PM]
gonna need deets fam
From: Annabeth [10:59 PM]
his string to cal is red
From: Will [10:59 PM]
From: Will [10:59 PM]
O H FUCK
From: Annabeth [11:04 PM]
just. I can't even. ughhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
From: Will [11:10 PM]
From: Annabeth [11:12 PM]
From: Will [11:15 PM]
you're telling me EVERYTHING tomorrow
From: Will [11:15 PM]
From: Will [11:16 PM]
i'm rlly sorry
"I told you," Annabeth grunts under her breath, "I told you everything, and that was, like, a week ago. Now shut up, people can hear us."
"He's all the way over there at the other end of the damn table," Will grumbles back. "And he's far too preoccupied with his food and his girlfriend right now."
"Sounds like the food is his girlfriend," she whispers.
"Our job would be so easy then," Will says.
"Or more difficult," she admits. "You know how much he loves cheeseburgers. And pizza." Will lets out a little snort; Annabeth giggles into her napkin. Reyna shoots them a look; Percy looks up at them, raises an eyebrow, and then looks away again.
"He still hates me," Will whimpers.
"He's acting like he hates me, too," Annabeth murmurs. She has to bite on her tongue to stop herself from ranting about it, because she'd thought that the talk had gone well. Sure, she'd found out that Percy — her soulmate — was linked to someone else, thus eliminating any slim chance she had and extinguishing any hope she'd unconsciously cultivated along the way, but it hadn't been a bad talk, as they go. She'd managed to throw him off, at the very least.
Next to her, Will sighs. "Why don't you, I don't know, just actually talk to him?"
"Not that easy," Annabeth sulks. "He won't even look at me."
"That's a little far-fetched, don't you think? If you would just approach him, he'll talk to you," Will reasons in a lofty tone, "He's not a guy to just ignore someone forever."
"Easy for you to say when you're not crushing on him," she mutters in exasperation.
"I talk to Nico all the time," he rebutts with a lilt of a smile, "Pretty easy."
"Shut up. It's not the same. The other day, when I asked him if he did his Calculus homework, he just nodded and went to his desk."
"Those are some first world problems you have there."
"Go fuck yourself," she grunts, and he snorts into his plate.
"I don't get it," she can't help bursting out a second later. "I wasn't bitter at all when I talked to him. I was...I was a bucket full of sunshine."
"I'm sure." Will picks absentmindedly at his food. "You barely look at him these days in school, and I heard from Grover that it's been awhile since you texted, or went to each other's houses, or...anything."
"Okay, I'm amending my previous statement. I was a bucket of sunshine," she snaps, "considering I'd just received the most heartbreaking news of my life."
"You're very brave." Will sets down his fork and claps thrice, loudly, like, a millimeter in front of her face. She swats his hand away. Nobody else pays attention to them, except for Piper, who looks mildly interested — which can't be a good thing — and Percy, who looks less than pleased: definitely not a good thing. Oh, yeah, which reminds her. Guess she's got to clean up this mess now, too. Prove she isn't dating Will by slapping him in homeroom or something.
Lunch ends, and Percy leaves the table without so much as a sideways glance in her direction. Will heads off, too, looking slightly stricken: his next class is with Percy, so it's no wonder he's scared. Piper shoulders her backpack and bumps Annabeth's shoulder lightly.
"So," she says.
Annabeth's been expecting this. "So."
"You and Will?"
"Nope." She pops the p. "Nope. Come on, Piper. I'd tell you, first off, and plus, you know he isn't my red string."
"That's why I was so confused," Piper says, sighing a little. "I mean, I dunno who started the rumor that you two were a thing, but it's not that hard to believe, because honestly, you guys've gotten a lot closer lately."
"Hell no," Piper grins. "Percy might be, though."
It's hard to fight down the blush. "He's fine. He's got his own soulmate to dote on."
"What?" Annabeth looks at her friend, but the other girl looks genuinely confused.
"Soulmate? You mean he finally got his red string?"
"Wait. What." Annabeth stops in her tracks. "Percy told me like, eight days ago, that his string to Calypso is red."
"It's not," Piper says.
Annabeth blinks. Half of her is hot with relief; the other is cold with anger at his lie. "Wha— are you sure?"
"They're the only color string I can see," Piper says slowly, eyes flashing in confusion. "I can see yours, mine, Frank's, Grover's...not his. His string to Calypso isn't red. I dunno what color it is, or if he even really has a string for her at all, but it's not red. For sure."
"Well." The anger takes over in an instant, cold and stinging, like an icicle has pierced her skin.
"Why would he tell you that?" Piper says. "Why would he lie?"
"I dunno." Unconsciously, she tugs on her own red string. Wonders if he can feel it now that their strings are different colors. "I dunno."
Sally lets her in; she doesn't even get the chance to ask Annabeth why she's stomping to Percy's room like the Hulk on a rampage, because Annabeth throws open the door, steps inside, and then slams it shut behind her in one fluid movement.
"You lied to me," she seethes.
Percy sets down his phone. "Hey, Annabeth. Nice of you to take the time to visit."
This throws her off. "What?"
"No, I mean," he grits out, "well, you never seem to have time for me anymore. You barely stop by, you don't talk to me in school—"
"What," she gasps, "I keep trying, it's not my fault if you're always in the middle of some date—"
"Don't make me the bad guy," he snaps. "You practically run in the other direction when you see me, you're constantly hanging out with Will, talking about, I dunno, all your secrets—"
"I don't keep secrets from you," she hisses back, immediately regretting it, because he jumps to his feet, eyes flashing.
"Liar," he says, and the force of the word hits her like a truck to the face. "You haven't been yourself since Calypso, and you're not exactly being nice to her, either, you don't like her for some reason and you won't tell me why—"
Obviously, her first instinct is to deny everything. No, she hadn't been avoiding him like the fucking plague — she hadn't been thinking of how her heart pounded whenever he was close — "That's not true, I—"
"Do you know how many times I had to force myself to smile at Luke, even though he broke your heart every day that you convinced yourself that you were in love with him—"
"I didn't convince myself to believe anything." Her hands clench into fists; she's still got her purple string for Luke, the one that means he was her first love. She knows she'd been stupid. Luke had been much older, but he'd been the closest thing to family for a long time. He'd never seen her as any more than a little sister, though, and she'd later learned that he'd had a red string of his own, and it definitely hadn't led to her. Still, though, it's hard to forget him. Some love, she reflects, can probably never be discarded.
She jolts herself out of it. "Stop changing the subject." She raises her voice. "You lied to me, Percy. You said you got your red string, said it was connected to Calypso—"
Finally, he has the sense to look a little guilty, but his features rearrange into an expression of defiance the very next moment. "Okay, I lied. So what? We aren't all as lucky as you, Annabeth."
"Don't." She points a shaking finger at him, anger bubbling right underneath her skin. "Don't even, Percy."
"Don't even what?" he asks. When she doesn't reply, he throws his arms into the air. "See what I mean? More secrets, more things you can't tell me for some flimsy reason—"
"Percy," she says, trying to calm herself, "I'm telling you, this is one thing I can't tell you. Shouldn't my word be enough?"
"It is enough," Percy says forcefully. "Or at least it would be enough if you still acted, well, yourself. I barely see you these days, Annabeth. And don't say that it's because of Cal, because I've been calling you and calling you, and you don't even pick up, or even text me back—"
"I didn't want to interrupt anything—"
"Don't give me that bullshit," he snaps. "We've been friends for more than a decade. You know that I wouldn't say a fucking word if you needed me. For anything."
"You stop changing the subject," she hisses back. "You know me, I told you this even when I was going through...whatever the hell that was with Luke, right from the beginning, I said that my issues are my own, this is something I won't tell you—"
"Something you won't tell me." He crosses his arms, eyes horribly cold. "So it's not that you can't. It's that you don't want to."
She fights herself before ultimately deciding that maybe being honest was the only way. "Yeah," she agrees. "It's true that I can't tell you, but I don't want to, either."
"But you'll tell Will."
She sighs in frustration. "He…he understands."
"And I don't?" His lips tremble like he's biting back an insult. "I've known you for more than half my life, but I'm not good enough to know this?"
"It's not about you!" she cries. "God, Percy! It's not about you! It's me!"
"Wow." He snorts in derision. "Pulling an 'It's not you, it's me,' that's great."
"You know what I mean." She squeezes her eyes shut. He doesn't know, he doesn't know just how much she would love to lunge these secrets into his waiting hands. "Look, I need to figure this out on my own, and Will is helping, and I'm sorry I haven't been able to talk to you about it, but you've got to admit that half of this is your fault, too." She inhales, then ploughs on. "Why did you lie about your red string?"
"Why does it even matter?"
"Because—" She stops, biting her lip. "Look, you always said you wanted to be with your real soulmate, and if it isn't Calypso, then you should—"
"What? Break up with her?" Percy stares at her she's started speaking some dead language that nobody understands. "Just because she's not on the other end of my red string? Which I haven't even gotten yet? I really like her, Annabeth, and what's to say my string that connects to her won't turn red one day?"
"It's just—" She feels incredibly selfish as she says, "You deserve to be with your soulmate, Percy, nobody less."
"You don't even believe in the red string," he says harshly. "Why are you saying all this now?"
She can't meet his eyes. "I— don't know. Maybe I've begun to believe a little."
He looks at her. "You've found your soulmate. You know who it is."
"I haven't." She pauses.
"You have." He stares at her. "Who is it? Is it Will?"
"No," she splutters. "That's-that's fucking ridiculous—"
"I don't know who it is," she lies.
"Lying again." He sits back down on his bed, rolling his eyes. "Annabeth, c'mon. I won't judge. Who is it?"
"What color is your string to Calypso?"
His head snaps up to stare at her. "Don't do this again. Why do you hate her so much?"
"I don't hate her," Annabeth snaps. "I just think that if she isn't your soulmate, she isn't right for you—"
"You don't get to decide for me!" he responds, voice raised. "You don't get to tell me she's wrong for me when she makes me so happy, because I am happy, okay? She's nice and funny and kind and-and I like her so much. Why can't you please, please, just this once, be on my side?"
"I am on your side," she says, but her voice is shaking. "I am."
"Then why won't you talk to me?" he persists.
"I told you—"
"You think I haven't noticed that your string to me has changed color?"
Her retort dies in her throat, replaced instead by fear that burns cold in her chest, making it hard to breathe.
"Because I did notice, even though you tried to hide it, even though you never brought it up," he says, in a voice so low it's almost a whisper. "I was waiting for you to tell me, but you never did. And I'm sure that that's the reason you've been acting so weird around me, and avoiding me, and not telling me anything—"
"Honestly," he says in a rage, "at this point, I don't care: if the string says we shouldn't be friends anymore, maybe we shouldn't."
Immediately, she can see in his eyes that he knows that he's made a mistake, that he hadn't meant to hurt her like that, but the damage has been done: all Annabeth can hear is the anger and hurt roaring in her ears like a torrent, like a waterfall crashing onto rocks. Percy's mouth opens, to say sorry, she knows, but her own lips form the words "Fine by me," before he can get the chance to apologize.
It is still.
Percy stiffens like he's just been stabbed and he is looking at her like he's seeing her properly for the first time. Like he's seeing her for what she really is: fickle and shallow and oh, so selfish. Annabeth feels ashamed under his scrutiny, but she is also unwilling to swallow her pride. She keeps her eyes on his, and when he looks away without a word, she mumbles a goodbye and gets the hell out of there.
She makes it down two flights of stairs before her head begins to hurt, and so she clutches the railing, leans over, and bursts into silent tears, breathing hard and heaving until she feels hollow and sore. She traces the path her other yellow strings take before finally looking at her other hand: the red string travels up, up, and into the ceiling, attaching itself to a boy who believes she doesn't care.
Nobody says it aloud, but everyone notices that something is wrong.
Annabeth and Percy haven't talked in nearly three weeks; she hasn't told anyone but Will about what exactly the fight was about, and, judging by the fact that none of the people in their group are shunning her, she guesses Percy hasn't told anyone either.
If it had been bad before, well. That had been nothing compared to the Cold War-esque thing they're playing at now.
"You aren't exactly winning him over by, uh, not speaking to him and not even looking at him and not even breathing the same air as him," Will points out helpfully. When she doesn't respond, he groans. "Why can't you just apologize and get it over with?"
"No," she says at once.
"Because." She can't find anything to say. "Ugh. Just drop it."
"Okay, okay." He raises his hands in surrender, but she can tell he's got more to say, and it annoys her. In fact, everyone who Annabeth considers as a close friend seems to constantly be on the verge of peppering her with questions. What happened with you and Percy? Why did you fight? Are you okay? It's a pain to be around them, because even though it seems like the rest of the group has decided not to pick sides, they're still treating Annabeth with too much caution, like they're waiting for her to explode.
Honestly? She just might.
So as a result, Annabeth withdraws. She withdraws into her books and her studies and puts up strong walls of steel. Her temper grows worse and worse until she finally snaps at Calypso during lunch, which makes the other girl start in surprise and causes Percy to give her a look that is both angry and disappointed. It's the first time he's looked at her in so long, and it makes her stop breathing.
The next moment, he has looked away, and Annabeth has apologized, blaming her outburst on her ever-increasing workload. Calypso smiles that angelic smile that makes her stomach turn, says she understands. But those who know her well enough: Piper, Reyna, Will, Frank — they all share a knowing look, a look that says they know she's lying. A look that means that they now understand the cause of Percy and Annabeth's fight. Calypso.
Annabeth catches up to Calypso right after the last bell, when she's alone by her locker, shouldering her bag. Her light brown hair flows in gentle waves down her back. Annabeth's own hair curls up further in envious contempt.
"Hey," Annabeth says.
Calypso turns. "Annabeth! Hi! I feel like it's been a long time since we last got to talk."
It has. Annabeth and Calypso had actually talked, semi-normally, in the few short months following her arrival, before she'd begun dating Percy. Annabeth doesn't remember what they'd chatted about, but she remembers walking away from the conversation with a smile on her face, because she really does like this girl.
"Yeah. Sorry." Annabeth sticks her pencil into her messy bun for want of something to do. "I...I just wanted to say sorry. About today at lunch. I've just been...really overworked and sleep deprived and—"
"Hey, no, oh my god." Calypso sweeps a long caramel lock of hair behind her ear. The sunlight catches in her eyelashes as she blinks rapidly, face melting in a soothing smile. "There's nothing to apologize for. I hear you've been studying like hell and writing college essays and stuff; I'd have reacted the same way."
Annabeth's heart pangs as she tries to smile back, even though the result is probably nowhere near as pretty and calming as Calypso's. "Thank you for understanding. And again, sorry. I really, really didn't mean to."
"No problem." Calypso shuts the locker and gestures toward the door; they fall in step together in an almost comfortable silence. Annabeth spies Will a few paces behind them, and he gives her a look that says What is going on? She shakes her head imperceptibly, then gestures for him to wait.
Outside, Calypso stretches her arms, exhales, then turns to Annabeth. "Do you have any plans today?"
"Uh, not really," Annabeth replies awkwardly.
"Yay!" Calypso claps her hands together, her feet tapping against the cemented ground in a catchy tune. Tap, tap, tap-tap-tap. "We were planning to go get a taco or something, wanna come with?"
"We?" Annabeth asks, and then her gaze is drawn toward the foot of the stairs, where Percy is staring up at the two of them. Even from this distance, Annabeth can tell he's wearing his trademark expression of total confusion, with his lips slightly parted and his eyebrows scrunched together. That look had always been pretty cute on him, but now it just makes her ache all over. "Um—"
Calypso raises an eyebrow. "No tacos? What about just a coffee? Or ice cream? Your choice."
And oh, man, that sounds good, but as much as Annabeth appreciates the offer, she can't accept it. "I-I," she invents wildly, "I just remembered, my dad — he's staying late at work today, and so I'm supposed to babysit my little brothers—"
Calypso looks like she doesn't believe a word of it. Annabeth doesn't blame her — she's a shit liar. Come to think of it, if she'd just been a better liar, she wouldn't be in this mess in the first place.
"C'mon. I think it'll be good for the both of you."
She gives up the pretense. "It really...won't."
"Percy won't even tell me what the fight was about." Calypso sounds nonchalant, but her eyes ask, Was it my fault? and Annabeth rushes to reassure her.
"It was — a combination of things," she admits. "But not you. Don't beat yourself up about it. We've fought a lot in the past." The fights had never been this bad, but Annabeth doesn't say this.
A little of the light returns to the other girl's eyes. "You sure?"
"I'm sure." Annabeth smiles, and this time it is genuine. "It'll be okay. Soon we'll be talking like normal again."
"He wasn't rude or anything, right?" Her large brown eyes are honest. Earnest. "Because I'll make him apologize. I already told him to, like, a million times. But he's so stubborn, I don't know what he's waiting for...it's so pointless. I know he misses you."
And despite everything, despite all the efforts Annabeth had taken to lock her heart and throw away the key, she feels something rattle hopefully against her ribs. "But I—"
"I've seen him checking his messages, just to see if you've sent him one," Calypso bursts out, apparently unable to stand it anymore. "Sometimes he just scrolls up in your chat and rereads previous conversations. Force of habit or not, he seems so lonely sometimes, and sometimes he's so impossible to read. I asked Jason about it and he said not to worry, and that only you could always tell what Percy was feeling, and—"
"Woah, hey." Annabeth places her hand on her shoulder. "All that comes with time. I-I've been his friend for ages. It's impossible to not know every little quirk about a person when you've been their friend that long. Doesn't mean you're doing anything wrong. Doesn't mean I'm...special, or anything."
"But you are," Calypso insists. "You are. You're his best friend and he misses you, he misses you so much, I know he does, even though he hasn't breathed a word about it to anyone."
Against her will, Annabeth glances Percy's way quickly again. He's frowning at the two of them, and then, shifting his gaze ever so slightly, he focuses on Will, who stands a few feet away from them, clearly pretending to shuffle through the items in his bag as though looking for something. His frown deepens. Annabeth looks away.
"I miss him, too," she admits, in the smallest of whispers. "I really do."
"Will you talk to him?" Calypso asks.
"Uh." She looks at her feet. "I can't. Not today. I'm sorry. I know you're worried about him."
"About both of you," she corrects, smiling. "We all are. We just want you guys to be okay."
"That's...more than I deserve. But thank you," she says sincerely, allowing herself to be pulled into a fleeting hug. She pats the other girl's shoulder. "Take good care of him for me."
"Will do." She waves, then hurries down the stairs to meet Percy, who smiles as she approaches. She thinks that he looks at her for a moment, maybe even less, before the two of them walk away, hand in hand. Annabeth exhales deeply and sits down heavily against the wall; Will rushes to join her.
"What in the world," Will says. "What — in — the — world."
"She's so nice," Annabeth howls, "She's so fucking nice, I hate it so much, I can't even deal, ugh." Her voice quakes; it sucks how much it hurts to admit that Calypso and Percy are practically perfect together. "I'm just so...done. I hate this stupid red string and how much it's changed everything."
His eyes are sympathetic. "Do you think you'll be okay?"
"Maybe." She wipes her eyes before the tears fall. "But not right now."
"Not right now what?" comes a new voice, and Annabeth turns around to see Piper standing a few feet behind them, arms crossed across her chest and wearing a deceptively composed expression. Annabeth's heart just about falls to her feet.
Will sees beyond the coolness in Piper's eyes, too, and stands up quickly. "I should...go."
Annabeth waves goodbye as Will scurries away; Piper doesn't move.
Finally, Annabeth bites. "How much did you hear?"
"Enough to know you're hiding something major from me." Piper allows the anger to finally trickle into her face. "Something that Will knows about."
"It's nothing," Annabeth tries.
"Bullshit," Piper says. "You've been acting weird for a long time, since...since even before Percy and Calypso got together, so you can't blame it on the fight you had with Percy. You've been shutting yourself in, talking only to Will, and today you snapped at Calypso for no reason-"
"I-" Her voice fails, and her entire body sags, because all she wants is to forget, but it's like she's hurting too many people in the process and she's so tired.
"And what were you just talking about red strings for?" Piper presses. "Did you find out who it connects to? Did you hide it from Percy? Is that why you fought?"
"No," Annabeth says, and she's horrified by how weak she sounds. Piper seems to think she's struck upon the truth.
"Annabeth," she says, a touch gentler, "I want to help, I want to know what happened, but I can't help it if you just...stop talking to me—" When Annabeth doesn't reply, she sighs in frustration. "Y'know, I know you're entitled to your privacy, but you can't just expect me to sit by and watch as you drift further from us, you look so tired and sad these days, and I just want to help—"
She cocks her head. "What's Percy?"
"My red string." Annabeth stands, her entire body shivering. "He's on the other end of my red string. There. You happy now?"
"Annabeth." Finally it seems to sink in, and her friend covers her mouth with her hands. "Oh, Annabeth—"
"That's the real reason you can't see who it connects to," Annabeth says in a rush. "Because his half of the string is still white, or yellow, whatever, meaning he's my soulmate but I'm not his, and...and— I don't know, okay? Will knows because he saw my string, he can see strings like ours, strings that are different colors, and he understands, I'm not trying to shut anyone out, least of all Percy, but-but I can't tell him." Suddenly she's on the brink of a complete breakdown. "I don't know what to do, and I just don't want to ruin what Percy has with Cal, but I can't tell him without ruining everything forever, even-even though I might've done that already."
And Piper flies forward, circling her arms around Annabeth's back, and Annabeth cries into her friend's jasmine-smelling hair. Piper doesn't say anything, just pats her head and leads them both back inside the school building so that Annabeth can cry in private.
And Annabeth does. She cries, and cries, and cries.
The good part is that now that Piper knows, she's firmly on Annabeth's side. Even though there aren't really sides. But whatever.
It also helps that Piper's a lot more vocal about Percy and Calypso: she tends to have the guts to say things that Annabeth thinks privately but can never say aloud. It's mean, yes, but a welcome change.
"Ugh," Piper mutters under her breath, as Percy and Calypso pass by their desks, laughing lightly about something. Percy's hand touches the small of her back; just looking at the casual display of affection makes Annabeth's cheeks burn. "Look at them flaunting their relationship in front of you. Disgusting."
"Piper, oh my god," Annabeth manages.
Will shushes them, but his eyes are twinkling, and it's so obvious how much he's enjoying this. "Piper, people can hear you."
"I don't care," Piper says firmly. "I think it's rude and insensitive and dumb, and I want them to know I'm not supportive of this blatant display of affection."
"You literally supported them until, like, yesterday," Will protests.
"So much has changed," says Piper, with much more emotion than necessary. "My friend needs me." She makes a big show of hugging Annabeth comfortingly, glaring at Percy all the while.
"You're so obvious," Will hisses.
"And you're tackling this the wrong way," Piper snaps back. "You've been focusing on containment; I say fuck that shit." She looks at Annabeth with wildness in her eyes. Annabeth shrinks away instinctively. "Go for it. Let it all out."
"I can't just do that," Annabeth interjects.
"If you have the balls," Piper yelps; it comes out louder than they'd expected. A couple of people turn around, including Percy and Calypso. Annabeth waves awkwardly at Calypso, who smiles back; Will smiles too, but Piper sniffs haughtily and turns her head. Calypso blinks in surprise, grin melting off her face.
"Oh my god, tone it down," Annabeth begs.
"But it's so unfair," Piper whines, grabbing Annabeth's hands and looking at her right in the eye. Annabeth shifts uncomfortably. "It's not fair that this should happen to you." She cringes. "Oh, man, and I wouldn't shut up about your red string. I feel so shitty."
"Who could've predicted this?" Annabeth mumbles tiredly.
"The worst part is, like, I actually just...always assumed you and Percy would get together at some point." Piper looks at Will, who shrugs and nods in agreement. "We all did." She drops her voice. "I didn't even know you had feelings for him."
"I didn't know either," she defends. "I feel like...I knew somewhere that I had feelings for him, I knew that they were always there, at the back of my mind, but we were always best friends first, and that had been all that mattered to me, but now, since the red string, it's like I've been forced to acknowledge them, it's not fair-"
"When'd it start? Like, really."
"I..." she trails off. She's tried to figure this out before, but it's so hard to pin down the exact moment. The exact moment when Annabeth began crushing on Percy.
It was a slow process. That, at least, she knows for sure. The seed was born probably from the moment they saw each other, she'd like to say, just like in the movies, but it started to actually take root around second grade, once they were really friends, which seems really early to get a crush, but maybe it wasn't exactly one at that point. Even later, Annabeth hadn't realized at the time that what she felt for Percy was more than friendship because—well, it wasn't like she'd had much to go off of for friendship before Percy anyway. She's had friends, sure, but none like Percy, and now she knows for a fact that she definitely hadn't felt this strongly about them, but when she started hanging out with Percy and Jason and Piper she just thought it was...normal. Didn't all friends feel little butterflies around each other? Didn't they all get flustered and warm? Didn't they all find themselves staring across the room when the other wasn't looking, wonder about what holding their hand might be like?
If Annabeth were forced to pinpoint an early moment when she knew for certain, without any trace of doubt in her mind, that her feelings for Percy had breached past platonic, well.
There was the time in the cafeteria in fifth grade, where Percy laughed so hard he snorted chocolate milk out of his nose, and Annabeth had been unable to keep from grinning from how infectious his laugh was, and she watched Percy frantically apologize to everyone for how gross that was, all while still laughing, and thought with intense clarity and unwavering certainty, I want it to be like this forever. And there was the time Percy was in the infirmary after a particularly rough basketball game with his arm in a cast and his hand newly scarred and Annabeth had been, for a hot second, unable to breathe with worry until she saw him sitting up in bed, worse for wear but smiling, and she had barely kept himself from telling him to never do that to me again, holy shit you worried me so badly what would I have done if you'd actually died?
And there was the time they were in Percy's room working on a schoolwork late into the night because they lost track of time, and they were sitting on the floor in front of Percy's bed with unfinished homework spread between their laps and Percy fell asleep with his head on Annabeth's shoulder, his face the most relaxed she might have ever seen it, and Annabeth couldn't bring herself to wake him up for a full hour because he looked so goddamn peaceful. And there was the time they talked all night on the phone about nothing in particular, really, and she'd shown up to school the next morning and fallen asleep in most of her classes, which earned her a detention; Percy was already in her room when she got back home and he laughed and said she was getting rusty. Desperately, uncharacteristically, shamelessly, she had thought, holy fuck I want to kiss you.
"I dunno," she decides.
"You liar, I can't even." Piper rolls her eyes. "You act like you're so tough and fierce and beyond all human emotion, but the moment you catch feelings you turn into such a transparent sap."
"What do you want me to say?" Annabeth demands. "See, the thing is that I've sort of had a giant, debilitating crush on you for, I don't even know how long, and also, like, my string to you turned red, but I didn't tell you because your half to me is still yellow, and-" She gives up. "There's no way there's a good ending to that scenario."
"Just tell him," Piper says.
"Not now," Will grunts. "Have you forgotten he has a girlfriend?"
"Who gives a shit—"
Sighing, Annabeth looks away; her gaze is drawn at once to Percy, who is staring down at his clenched fist. With a start, she realizes he's yanking his yellow string lightly — the one that leads to her — with a thoughtful expression, his bottom lip swollen from chewing on it. Annabeth tries to focus, tries to sense the same little tickling sensation she's felt the time he'd pulled on her string before, but now she feels nothing.
He looks up, and their eyes meet. Annabeth whips her head around so fast the ends of her ponytail smack her in the face.
Annoyingly, their brief exchange hasn't been missed by Piper and Will, who look both amused and pitying.
"She's so in love," Will says.
"I know, right?" Piper replies. This they agree on.
"Shut up," Annabeth grunts, turning around in her desk at the teacher walks in. It's Physics, one of her favorites, but Annabeth can't focus. In love, she thinks remorsefully. Being in love is supposed to make you feel happy, right? Isn't it supposed to feel like flying, reaching for the stars, like she could live among them even with her feet bound to the earth.?
She doesn't want...this. All this regret and hiding and pining. She supposes it's her own fault.
As for Annabeth's own fierce love — well, she supposes she's felt it before. There's Piper and Grover and Reyna and Frank and her dad, there's the protectiveness she feels over subjects dear to her, there's early mornings, and pretty city lights, there's her stepmom's easy greeting when she gets home, there's the swelling in her chest when she looks up at a beautiful building.
And —well. There's Percy, too. Maybe he has been there for a while.
More and more often these days, Annabeth thinks of better times.
It had been simpler when they were younger. When Percy would burst into her house, drag her out by the wrist, and run — they would run to the playground, climb the monkey bars and stand up on the swing sets and jump when the swing reached its peak. They'd run to the park. Sit for hours and hours under the biggest tree there — Annabeth would kick off her shoes and Percy would adopt a few hundred bugs they'd find under rocks. They'd run to the candy store where Sally used to work, and the old lady at the counter would give them free samples. Lungs raw and breathless, Percy's hand tight around her wrist. It had felt like the universe had shoved the brightest, most dazzling person it could conjure right into her orbit, no way to flee or hide.
She has loved him a long time.
"I don't even remember why we're fighting," she tells Will, forlorn, head slumped against her desk.
"Because you both are stubborn," Will rattles off, like he'd been expecting the question. "Because you don't have the balls to tell him what's really up, he feels like he's losing you and feels angry that you're keeping something from him."
"The balls?" She raises her head. "Will, you're in the same boat as I am."
"Yeah, but I'm not fucking it up this bad." He pats her lightly on the head. "Annabeth, I wish you'd just talk to him."
It is. It's so hard, because Annabeth's got too much damn pride and she can't find the courage to approach him first. She feels so terrible about all the things she'd told him — half of which she can barely remember — and she wants so badly for them to be friends again because oh, she misses him so much. They barely cross paths these days, and everyone has stopped asking her about it: Calypso shoots her quick, fervent looks, like she's on the verge of telling her something, but the other girl always seems to change her mind in the end.
Sometimes, she'll find herself on her way to his house after a bad day, and she has to remind herself that she probably isn't welcome anymore. She wonders if he misses her, and then she wants to claw at her forehead. She tells herself there's no point in thinking these things, and hides her loneliness with apathy.
She's on her way home after debate club and she's not sure what prompts her to extract her phone from the pocket of her jeans, but the moment she does she gets the text, and it makes her stop right there in the middle of the sidewalk and blink the sleep out of her eyes.
From: Percy [7:01 PM]
we broke up
From: Percy [7:01 PM]
can you come over
She doesn't hesitate. She whirls around, running in the opposite direction, typing her hair up into a messy bun as she hurtles through the street; she doesn't even pause to apologize to the many people she bumps into in her haste as she reaches Percy's building and flies up the stairs.
She pounds on the door, because screw manners; Sally lefts her in with a small smile on her face as she gestures wordlessly to the closed door that leads to Percy's room. Annabeth walks over and turns the handle.
Percy's sitting cross-legged on his bed, and his expression crumbles when she closes the door behind her and slowly makes her way to him. Cautiously, almost like she's forgotten how, she seats herself across from him. Percy doesn't comment, just breathes out slowly and heavily, shaking slightly.
"When?" she says.
"An hour ago," he replies.
"I...don't know, or like, maybe I do, but I also don’t, I don’t know," he whispers, in a tortured voice. "She said we weren't right for each other. I don't—I don't...I don't get it."
"Oh, Percy," she mumbles. "I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry."
His lower lip trembles, and he closes his eyes, runs his hands through his fingers. "I don't understand where I went wrong. What I did. I mean, I know…I could’ve been better to her. As a boyfriend. And...we weren't perfect, we fought, but—I just. I don't know." To her horror, his eyes are wet when he opens them, and his hands, clenched into tight fists, are shaking.
Without thinking, she grabs his shoulders, forcing him to look straight into her eyes. "Percy. You didn't do anything wrong. Trust me. If she broke up with you, it must be because of her own issues. It doesn't...it doesn't mean that it's your fault."
"I can't stop thinking about it." Percy bows his head, and a tear splashes down onto the navy blue sheets. "Annabeth, I-I..."
"Hey," she murmurs, pulling him into a hug, "don't beat yourself up over this."
"I didn't know who else to tell, who else to call," he breathes into her shoulder. He feels limp, dead, as her arms circle his back. "Annabeth, I was so mean to you, I stopped talking to you, I—"
"Hey," she says, firmly. "Hey. Let's not — I mean. Just. Don't think about that right now."
Slowly, he nods, sniffling quietly; his hair tickles her neck and she rubs her fingers in little circles on his back. After a while, his body begins to shake with sobs, and he mutters thickly, "What could I have done better?"
"Nothing," she whispers. "Nothing."
And he cries into her shoulder as she holds him, and then, when he's still, she rests his head onto a pillow, patting his back while he shakes and cries and wonders aloud about how this all happened; her red string shines brightly against the black of his hair, but she barely notices. She only soothes him silently with her voice, turning up the music on her phone so Sally and Paul can't hear him hurting, because Percy's string is still whitish, which means that even after all that's happened, he still considers her his best friend, and things like this, things like putting your own shit aside to just be there for someone else...that's what a best friend does.
In the weeks that follow, Annabeth and Percy mend their friendship back together.
It's a little awkward at first, sure: Annabeth isn't exactly sure how to act around him now that Calypso isn't around; and it takes Percy a little while before he's comfortable enough to, once again, barge into her room at any moment, but once day at lunch Annabeth murmurs something sarcastic under her breath, Percy chokes on his sandwich in attempt to stop his laughter, and click everything falls right back into place.
Annabeth couldn't be happier.
What sucks is that, even though they tried to remain friendly, Calypso ended up drifting away from their circle of friends. It makes Annabeth a little sad and a lot guilty, especially since Piper and Will keep nudging her and saying things like the way is clear and go for it, girrrrrrrrrl! And yeah, the way is clear, but Annabeth hasn't forgotten that Percy's string to her is still yellow on his end, and she's not the kind of person to dump her feelings on someone who just went through a breakup. It'd insult Calypso, too, make it seem like she's just been waiting to get her out of the way so she could make her move.
"Go kiss him," Piper demands as they watch Percy frantically shove books into his locker. "Do it."
"No," Annabeth says. "God, Piper. Jeez. That's just...no."
"You want to."
"Whether I want to or not," she says delicately, "Isn't really the issue here."
"You never know, though," Piper whines, crossing her arms and pouting. "You know how dense the guy is, maybe he needs a kiss as, like, that one final push, and then bam his string will turn red and he'll be like, wow, Annabeth, I can't believe it was you all along, and then you'll kiss kiss fall in love, and get married, and have kids and —"
"Oh my god." Annabeth covers her face with a notebook; Will snickers behind them. "No."
"And like the worst part is, like, I was sure you'd get together by the end of the year. I bet good money on it." Piper sighs dramatically, before looking at Will, whose eyes are wide. He makes little cross gestures with his hands, like shut up! but Annabeth's already heard.
"What," Annabeth says, as Will groans aloud. "What even."
"Oh fuck," Piper whispers, "Shit fuck. God damn it. I'm not supposed to tell the participants."
"You idiot," Will howls. "You blithering idiot, I kept my mouth shut all this time, why couldn't you—"
"What money. What," Annabeth grinds out.
"Aw, jeez." Piper withdraws her phone, amping up the brightness, even. "Take a look, but promise you won't tell."
She looks, then nearly screams.
"What the fuck," she says, looking up at Piper, who looks unashamedly amused, and Will, who at least has the sense to look embarrassed.
"This," She begins, pointing to the screen with a finger, "is a betting pool. For who's going to end up with Percy. By the end of the school year."
"That's right!" Piper confirms with unbridled glee. "As you can see, you currently have a one in three chance at winning."
"Why," Annabeth sighs. She can feel herself aging years with every second spent talking about this. "Why is Jason in third place."
"He's also got a one in fifteen chance of Percy reciprocating his feelings," Will adds unhelpfully.
Anger, Annabeth decides, would be wasted on the two. "Why does he even have a chance. At all."
"Haven't you seen the bromance, though," Will says.
"But you're number one, look!" Piper zooms in on her name next to a large red 1. "Calypso's still in second, because apparently a lot of people still think they have a chance to fix things between them, and Juniper swears she sees Calypso looking at him all regretfully and stuff, but there's no way that's happening!"
"Jesus fuck, Piper," Annabeth wails, "Is that why you've been bugging me to kiss Percy this past week?"
"You don't even know how much I'll win if you guys just get together," Piper whispers fervently.
"Who even." She gulps. "Who even started this."
"Leo, I think." Will grabs the phone and scrolls down to where Leo's name is on the better's list. "He actually has a one in two thousand chance of getting a kiss from Percy, weirdly enough. But also, like, I think Travis and Connor are recording everything for the bookies."
"Ah, I see," she says calmly. "When I get my hands on them, they're dead."
"Don't tell," Piper begs. She pauses. "Okay, don't tell I told you."
"Why is Ethan in fifth?" Annabeth wonders aloud. "I mean, he hates Percy. There's, like, no chance." She glances quickly at Piper. "Wait, how are you even okay with Jason being on the list?"
"Ethan's like the dark horse," Will explains. "We're speculating that maybe his hate is borne from certain other feelings of the heart."
For a split second, Annabeth thinks, oh, that makes sense, before realizing how stupid she sounds and pointing down the list. "Grover, Reyna...oh my god, Will, even you're on here."
"I'm popular," Will admits.
"I'm seventeenth in line," Piper says.
Annabeth settles for hiding her face in frustration. "I don't even know what to think."
"Think about me." Piper's eyes glitter, like she's having too much fun with this. Annabeth's pretty sure she is. "I've got half my dad's salary in there. Now all you need to do is kiss the man, and I'll give you twenty percent of the profits."
"You're so manipulative," Annabeth jokes. "You know I'm broke, bribing me with money isn't fair."
"I'm broke-er," Piper whines.
"I told you not to splurge on this," Will says, in a smug voice that makes Piper roll her eyes. He turns to Annabeth, and says, in a loud whisper, "She put in, like, a hundred dollars the day she found out about your red string."
"Betrayal!" Annabeth yelps.
"Supportive!" Piper counters.
"You guys are crazy," Will says.
"You're going to his house today," Piper interrupts, in a solemn voice. She grabs Annabeth by both shoulders. "You're going to tell him about everything."
"Are you- are you actually trying to hypnotize me?" Annabeth wriggles. "Get off, Piper, I'll — ow!" Because Piper had just poked her right between the eyes, apparently unable to stand it anymore.
"What?" she demands. "Don't tell me — Annabeth, don't look away, you — Annabeth!" She manages to make Annabeth look her right in the eye. "Don't tell me you're planning on keeping this a secret forever."
"No," Annabeth says immediately; then she considers. "Huh. Actually—"
"What the hell," Piper says.
"Actually, she's right on this one," Will agrees. "You can't just keep it a secret forever. Stuff like this needs to be said."
"Look," she argues, "it's not like I haven't thought about it, okay. I mean, I feel like I'm gonna have to tell him at some point, it's just..." Her voice trails off. But she isn't lying. She's thought about telling Percy so much; she's even freaking dreamed about it. Sometimes, dream-Percy will smile, hug her, kiss her, tell her that he feels the same way, as his string darkens to scarlet before her eyes. In other versions, he sneers, acts like it's a joke, laughing outright in her face. Who'd love you, Annabeth? Who'd want you as their soulmate? Even though she knows Percy would never be that rude to her, the possibility still stings.
"Just what?" Piper urges. "I get it the first time. He was with Cal, and you were still dealing with it, and stuff. But now there's nothing stopping you."
"At the very least," Will says, "you can get it off your chest."
She takes a breath. "Okay. So. I like him."
"The hell are you confessing to us for?" Piper grumbles. Will shushes her.
"But I can't just tell him," she says. "I mean...things just got back to normal. I don't want to ruin it again. I want us to be friends right now. I'm fine with us being just friends right now. Does that make sense?" When Piper shakes her head, Annabeth sighs. "I don't wanna lose him again. I can shut the feelings down if I had to. I just...I can't go through that whole fighting thing again."
"What are you so afraid of?" Piper says boldly. The question wounds her a little, makes her feel like a coward, but it does make her consider. "This is Percy we're talking about here. He'd never hurt you intentionally."
"I get what you mean, about not wanting to lose him," Will says. "But you shouldn't have to be the one making all the sacrifices." When she doesn't respond, he clasps her hand. "Just try to tell him, Annabeth. Just try."
She meets their eyes: Piper nods encouragingly, and Will smiles. Oddly enough, she feels near tears again; suddenly so full of gratitude for the two of them.
"Okay," she says. "I'll try."
It's mundane when she almost gathers the courage to do it.
They're in Percy's living room, Sally and Paul out grocery shopping. They're meant to be studying for finals week, and while Annabeth seems to have made more than sufficient progress, Percy has had to re-read the same paragraph five different times. He keeps looking over the page, making little sighing noises that drive Annabeth so crazy that she can barely focus herself. She keeps getting distracted, promising herself it'll only be a second—but then she notices how long Percy eyelashes are, or how his nose scrunches up when he's thinking really hard about something, or how dark the freckles on his cheeks have gotten, more prominent now that it's summer. Her eyes follow a trail from his nose to his jawline to his collarbones to his arms.
"Hey," she says, out of nowhere, into the silence. The word comes out as almost an order. Percy's finger, hooked around the next page for when he's ready to flip it, drops at once like he'd been waiting for her to say something.
"Yeah?" He gazes at her, unblinking, like he's giving her his full attention. It makes Annabeth a little uncomfortable: there's a little Piper in her head yelling at her to kiss him kiss him kiss him, damn it, so she keeps glancing at his lips without really meaning to; she remembers Will's advice to not keep her secret bottled up forever, and decided to keep up her end of the deal.
What are you so afraid of? Piper has asked.
She doesn't know.
"I, uh," she begins, in a voice that trembles ever so slightly, "I wanted to tell you something."
"Uh huh?" He closes the textbook.
Her mouth opens, then shuts in annoyance. Why does talking about this have to be so stupidly difficult? "I'm glad we're not fighting anymore," she admits after a long moment.
"Me too," he laughs. "I mean, for obvious reasons, but also...you're so scary when you're mad." He glances at her, quickly, fleetingly. His smile is replaced with a small, thoughtful frown—not angry, just thinking. "You're not still mad, right?"
"Oh, god bless." He claps his hands together as if praying. "I really didn't know how long you were gonna keep that up, 'cause holy shit, dude, you're stubborn."
"I can still take it back—"
"No, no, no, I'm just kidding!" Percy rushes, but when she finally meets his eyes, she sees that he's obviously fighting a grin. The corners of his eyes crinkle with a smile, and she finds herself relenting too, grinning and punching his shoulder lightly. He chuckles, says, "Jesus Christ, we're actually horrible," and she laughs along, thinks, Okay. Okay, I can do this.
She takes one look into his wide green eyes and chickens out about two seconds later, but settles on another topic that she'd been avoiding. Something is better than nothing, right? "I wanted to apologize. Properly. For, uh, like, everything. I was...really bitchy."
"No more than I was." Percy rests his head on his hands, giving her a small, crooked smile.
"Yeah, but...I pushed you away. After Calypso. That was my fault. I ignored you and I yelled and I—"
"I lied to you," he cuts in. "About my red string. That was the first time I ever lied to you. I-I don't even know why I did it, I...I dunno. I guess, when you told me you had a red string, I kind of felt...left behind."
"Percy," she says.
"Which is dumb, I know," he continues quickly. "I was just. I mean, I was happy for you, obviously, I wasn't lying about that, but I was also a little jealous. That you got your red string."
There is a part of her that hopes he will add, and that your string didn't connect to me, but when he says nothing, she replies throatily, "You have...no reason to be jealous." She inhales shakily, clenching her fists in resolve. "A-and, Percy. About my red string. I—"
"I don't wanna know," he interrupts before she can tell him, and just like that, the confidence she'd been building up inside her chest goes pop like a balloon. "I mean, I do, duh, but there's a reason you didn't tell me in the first place, and so...I guess I'm gonna respect that. I acted really shitty and possessive before, like I-I owned you or something, and I was rude to Will, too, because he was being a good friend to you, something I wasn't being. So...I don't wanna pry. You'll tell me when you wanna tell me, if you wanna tell me, and...I'm okay with that. Or I'm gonna learn to be."
She'd be lying if she said her entire body didn't sag at his words. A little of what she is feeling is disappointment, but the rest is relief, filling her chest, making her sigh. She should tell him, she knows. It's the smart, right, logical thing to do, and this stupid secret has caused enough trouble already; she opens her mouth to say something, anything, but what comes out is a heartfelt "Thank you."
They seem to be at a standstill, now, suspended between Percy's uncertainty in what he wants to say and the need to say it, a disconnect somewhere that's making Annabeth fidget for a reason she can't quite grasp. "Fighting with you sucked," he says quietly after what seems like ages. "And I acted...really, really badly. Your secrets are yours; I shouldn't have pushed you to tell me something you were clearly uncomfortable dealing with. I just made it worse for you. I don't want something stupid like that mess with us again."
"That's...surprisingly mature of you," she says.
"I'm sick of this whole red string drama. It's totally overrated. But other than that," he says, holding up his pinkie and glaring at her, "No secrets." He pauses. "Unless you don't wanna tell me. Because, like, I totally respect your decision. Whatever you do." He blinks, then lets out a little groan. "I ruined it, didn't I."
The laugh that bubbles out of her is genuine, and she slips off the sofa to link their fingers together. Her string radiates red, and his, yellow, but for the first time, she feels no stab of pain, no heartache. "No secrets." Except the red string. That'll be hers for the keeping, she thinks ruefully, watching a smile break across his face. Her only secret, and hopefully her last. It's for his own good.
The days following graduation are bittersweet.
It's hectic as hell: Annabeth's gotten acceptance letters from most colleges she'd applied to; now it's just a matter of choosing which one to go to, but she'd leaning toward Cornell. It's close to home and great for architecture. Lines up just right with her plans.
Thing is, though, most of her friends are going out of the state. Piper actually sobs when she gets her acceptance letter from FIDM in Los Angeles; at first they all think she's crying out of relief, but it turns out to be actual grief that she's going to be leaving soon.
Percy's going to the University of Southern California on a swimming scholarship. Her heart bursts with pride when he tells her and shows her the acceptance letter, but she had found herself unable to sleep all night, tossing and turning in restless agony. She wakes up with her face pressed into a wet pillow; she'd been crying in her sleep.
It's...it's just wrong. Percy and Annabeth in different places, without them walking back together from, well, wherever, laughing and talking and pretending to push each other into the traffic-filled roads...it's not right.
She won't be able to come home to see him sprawled out on her bed, doodling in her textbooks; she won't be able to amble over to his place for movie night. The thought makes her eyes sting with tears, she brushes them hurriedly away. She can't be like this today, not today. Because he's leaving tomorrow, and they've both cried enough times over the past week.
They've been inseparable the last month. Staying over nights, watching all the movies they'd missed out on when they'd been fighting, talking into the night about the most worthless things. Only now does Annabeth fully realize how much time they'd spent apart this year because of that goddamn fight, and she thinks that maybe she's never regretted something so much in all her life.
The tears start again on the way to his house; she has to stop midway to take a breath, which is when she sees Calypso exiting the building.
"Hey," Annabeth calls, unable to stop herself.
Calypso turns. Smiles, though it's a little sad. "Annabeth. Hey. Heading up to the party upstairs?"
"I wouldn't call it that," Annabeth says. "Why are you leaving so early?"
"I've got guests at home, apparently." She rolls her eyes good-naturedly. "My dad texted me to be back, like, stat. He's a terrible host, but he acts like having company over and making them some coffee is harder than supporting the sky."
She laughs a little. "But-" She can't finish the question, but it lingers in the air. Don't you want to stay?
Calypso seems to understand, and she shrugs casually. "I mean, yeah, it's Percy, and he's leaving, and I still care about him deeply, but...I dunno. Would've been awkward if I'd overstayed."
"He still cares about you, too," Annabeth says. He's never actually said it, but she supposes it can't be far from the truth.
"Oh." Calypso stares down, at the cracked cement sidewalk. Annabeth wants, very badly, to ask her why she broke up with him in the first place, because it's very clear how much she still loves him. The question rises up to her throat, and the words are there, but then she decides that it's totally inappropriate, and she closes her mouth with a snap.
Calypso's phone buzzes. "Dad again. I should go."
"Yeah. Me too. Take care, Cal."
"You too." The other girl smiles, waves cutely, and then begins to walk away in the opposite direction; Annabeth blinks, then turns to enter Percy's apartment building, but then hears her name being called and turns back.
Calypso's cheeks are flushed and her eyes are glassy, but she manages a smile when she calls, "Tell him!"
Annabeth feels only embarrassed horror taking over her entire body as she covers her face with her hands in mortification; Calypso laughs and yells again, "Do me a favor! Take care of each other, okay?"
This she can do. It'll be her pleasure to, in fact. "Okay!" She waves until the other girl's caramel brown hair whips around the corner.
Emotions a mess inside her, swirling around in her chest like a whirlpool, Annabeth pauses on the stairs and takes a long breath, but it's pointless: when she steps into his apartment, her eyes begin to smart.
Most of their friends are gathered around the sofa, with the exception of Leo, Reyna, and Juniper, who've already left for their respective universities. Piper, who's due to leave in a week and a half, bursts into tears (again, by the looks of it) when Annabeth closes the front door behind her.
Percy gestures for her to join him; she plops herself down on the carpet next to him. From the looks of things, Frank and Jason are competing to see who can finish a jar of Sally's homemade jam the fastest.
It's stupid and fun; they all watch shit movies and really old Disney shows and inhale the cookies faster than Sally can make them, but when they all begin to leave, it occurs to Annabeth that this might be the last time they'll get to do this, and suddenly her chest closes up and she has to excuse herself to the bathroom.
Everyone is gone by the time she's collected herself; she makes a move for the door, too, but Percy catches her hand as she begins to walk away.
"Stay," he says.
"Percy," she murmurs.
"Ask your dad."
"I don't have any clothes, or...anything."
"Borrow mine," he says immediately. "Please? I...don't want this to end right now."
"Okay," she relents; taking out her phone and sending a quick test to her father, who replies back, Okay. Tell him goodbye from all of us, and good luck.
It's been a long time since their last sleepover. Annabeth had forgotten what it had felt like: Sally leaving them cookies in the oven and leftover lasagna in the fridge, telling them to not stay up too late, because they've got to catch a flight in the morning. Percy getting out two dusty blankets and a bunch of pillows; they make a little tent and huddle inside, watching movies on his laptop, sending weird texts from each other's phones. Percy laughs so hard at one point that he sprays cookie crumbs all over the floor, and Annabeth snorts so violently that her entire face begins to ache.
They watch Lord of the Rings, and then Harry Potter, and then Voltron: Legendary Defender, and then The Legend of Korra, and Percy's pretending to waterbend and Annabeth's pretending to kick his ass, and it's three in the morning, and Percy has to leave in two hours.
It gets really quiet really fast.
"Are you awake?" Percy asks suddenly. In the dark, she can just barely make out his silhouette, hair standing up in spikes like a hedgehog. Percy always leaves his blinds open when he sleeps, and the streetlights outside the apartment shine across the room. A car passes. Annabeth looks at him.
"Yeah," she whispers back finally. Percy turns over so that he faces her. He's so close that she can count his freckles, possibly, if she tried. His breath is warm and tickles her face when he exhales. He's...he's so close. Annabeth really wants to run her hands through his hair. Press her face into his chest. She's wearing his shirt, so she already smells a little like him, but having his nose literally an inch from hers is giving her, like, ten different kinds of heart attacks.
"Can't sleep?" she asks.
"Nah." Even in the dark, she can see Percy's lip twitch up in a small, almost melancholy smile. It's nothing funny, what they're talking about. But she still appreciates the sight.
"Me neither," she says.
Percy sits up, pushing the covers off of him as he does so, and scoots over closer. He pats the space next to him, and Annabeth takes the invitation gingerly, sitting up, wriggling over and filling the space next to him like she's afraid he will change his mind last second. He's stiff, his back straight and his hands folded awkwardly. Annabeth lies back down, still facing Percy.
"Do you want to talk about it?" she asks.
"I'm not sure." There's a honk of a car outside, and Percy's body tenses. She reaches up to touch his shoulder.
"Calm down," she tells him. "You need to rest right now."
"So do you." He laughs lightly. "Now I feel a little guilty for keeping you here all night."
"Shut up," she says. "This is—perfect."
He looks at her gratefully. "I was thinking the same thing." Lying back down, he squeezes his eyes shut, yanking the covers up to his chin, but deciding against it and throwing it over her, too.
It's silent, but not uncomfortable. Annabeth looks up at the ceiling and forces herself to breathe, because with him so close it's like all her senses are screaming to get closer to him, and she doesn't want to do something stupid and embarrassing and impulsive like grab his face with both hands and kiss the breath out of him. It won't end well.
"I wish I didn't have to go," he whispers, and she pulls herself out of her thoughts.
"Me, too," she says.
"I don't wanna leave." The breath he takes is shuddering and suddenly she's very afraid he's crying. Slowly, she reaches out to touch his cheek; it's wet.
"No," she mumbles, "don't—" and suddenly they are both crying and clutching each other, Percy's face in her shoulder, shaking. Legs tangled, arms around each other, Annabeth and Percy cry and cry until they catch sight of each others' tear-streaked faces in the dim light and begin to snicker. Annabeth's entire body aches by the time they're done laughing, but the lightness in the air dies quickly.
"You're thinking too much," Annabeth mumbles. When Percy only blinks at her, she says, "I can tell. You've got that look on your face." Her hand is still resting on the small of his back. It's warm. Sometimes she wants to bottle up that warmth so she never has to be without it.
"I'm not trying to," Percy defends.
"But you are. Thinking is my job, anyway, Seaweed Brain. Think about something else."
"If I could, I would be asleep right now," he grumbles. She grins faintly.
"Point taken." She notices he's still stiff, shoulders tense. Every now and then, he inhales sharply, like he's about to speak, but he still doesn't saying anything. Annabeth grabs his hand and tugs.
"Are you going to cry?" she asks bluntly. She doesn't say it to be mean.
Percy knows, too; he only laughs, but some of it gets clogged in his throat and it comes out strangled. "Maybe," he admits. "I mean, probably. I've already cried about it, but…" He presses the palms of his hands into his eyes, digging them in so hard that he probably sees stars behind the blackness. It's meant to stop the tears, but they escape anyway, sliding down his cheeks and, because he's laying down, into his ears.
"You're allowed to cry more than once," she says, mostly because she's crying again, too.
Percy has calmed down some. Lips a straight line, green eyes staring straight ahead instead of looking at her. He still has difficulty admitting it sometimes, that he can be weak. Weak like this.
"Percy," she mumbles, when her chest has stopped heaving.
"Mmm." He sounds sleepy. The digital clock on the coffee table says it's 3:45 AM.
"You're my best friend," she says. Then- "I love you." It comes out calmer than expected, as if it hadn't been a daunting, terrifyingly plausible idea only an hour ago. He doesn't need to know how true the latter statement is, and in what way she really means it.
He holds her hand. Links their pinkies, even though he can't see her half of the string. It's like a reminder, of sorts. That nothing will change, even if he's going away.
"I love you too," he whispers back.
Annabeth wakes up to Sally rousing Percy, her eyes sad. Annabeth shakes herself awake, then pokes Percy in the cheek. They'd fall asleep in tears, curled around each other, but lips curved into smiles.
"Wake up," she says, and she can relate to the groan of displeasure Percy gives her in response.
"You have horrible bed head," she murmurs.
Percy scrunches his nose and half-heartedly nudges her knee with his own. "Like yours is much better," he responds, but Annabeth can't imagine that the state she's in would come even close to comparing to the wild mess that is Percy's hair right now. She reaches out to pat it down, but he catches his hand on the way up and ends up entwining their fingers.
"I like it," he says, using his free hand to touch her curls. His fingers catch on a tangle, and he detangles it as best he can without hurting her.
"You just said it was horrible." She pulls her hand away. "C'mon, you have to get up."
"You still sure you wanna come?" Percy mumbles. He scoots over so their legs are pressed together, hooking his ankle around hers, looking perfectly content to stay curled around her for the rest of the morning.
"I can't not," Annabeth grunts back.
He might be smiling. "Haven't you had enough of me crying?"
"I'm hoping for more," she jokes. "I'm taking videos this time. Sending it to everyone we know."
"Rich, coming from Miss Niagra Falls yesterday."
"Ha ha." She quickly changes into the clothes she'd worn the previous night; watches Percy piles his suitcases by the door. It takes four trips for all the luggage to be loaded into the Prius. He grabs a photo of the two of them as kids, too, the one that he'd framed and put on his desk. It's a cute picture. Percy's missing a tooth, and Annabeth's got at least seven bugs in her hair. She can't help smiling.
Everyone is silent in the car as they make their way to the airport. It's bustling with people; Paul and Percy heave the suitcases out of the trunk and they all wheel them inside.
It's near the security check-in that they all stop. Sally is crying; she gives Percy a hug, kisses him on the cheek. Percy and Paul hug, too: Paul looks a little misty-eyed, but he steps back to hug his wife.
Percy turns to her. He is shaking. She might be, too, but she can't really tell.
"So," he says.
"Yep," she replies. "I guess this is it."
"I'm gonna miss you," he says. "Like...you don't even know how much."
"I know," Annabeth replies, throat choked up. She clears it. "I'll miss you the exact same. If not more."
"Wanna bet?" he grins, but then he takes a huge step forward and crushes her in his arms. His hands always seem to fit perfectly at her sides, sitting so comfortably he might think they were made to, if she believed in that sort of thing. Annabeth's eyes are stinging as she brings up her arms to hug him back.
"You're the best," he tells her. "I'll Skype, text, call...I'll do everything."
"Same," she chokes out.
"You swear?" He steps back, holds out his pinkie.
"I swear." A part of Annabeth — the ever-growing portion of her, the optimistic and trusting part that is entirely made for Percy — knows in a quiet corner of her heart that she will never let go of this, of him grasping her hand, for as long as he would allow her to stay by his side. She curls her own pinkie around his, but doesn't get time to detangle it before he hugs her again. She can feel the warmth through his jacket, feel her heart racing in her own chest.
"Love ya," he mumbles again. She knows that he doesn't mean the words the same way she does, but a part of her, a tiny part, a hopeful part relishing in the warmth of his touch — that foolish part believes him anyways.
"You too," she manages.
For a second, Percy looks down at her as she steps away from the hug, and he is right. There. They are nose to nose, gasping into each other, and her senses fail altogether, and then, just as quickly, kick into overdrive, and her entire being screams they're gonna kiss they're gonna kiss they're gonna kiss—
He steps back, and the moment is lost. Annabeth steps away, too, blinking rapidly, trying to keep the disappointment at bay.
"Okay." He grabs his hand luggage. "I'll see you guys soon."
"Call when you finish checking in," Sally says. "Call when you're in the flight. Call when you land. Call when you get to campus—"
"Call every step of the way, got it," Percy laughs, even though there is a very large tear rolling down his cheek.
"We'll miss you," Paul says. "Good luck, son."
"Thanks, Dad," Percy says, and everyone chokes up all over again.
He looks at her last. Annabeth wants to say something, she has to say something, she can't just...ugh, stare at him, goddamn it, but words fail her, and she ends up just smiling and lifting her pinkie up near her face. Red circles her finger, falls to the floor, turns yellow, and lifts up as Percy raises his own hand.
"See you," he says. "Keep yourselves busy."
"We'll miss you!" Sally calls, before breaking down entirely in her husband's arms; neither of them watch as Percy walks further and further away, head high but shoulders trembling.
Annabeth follows him with her gaze until she's sure he won't turn back, but right before he rounds the corner, he stops and raises his hand in farewell; Annabeth thinks she sees a flash of red extending from his finger, but then he takes another step and vanishes from sight.
From: Percy [2:11 AM]
From: Percy [2:11 AM]
my flight is in an hour and a half i'm booooooooored
From: Percy [2:11 AM]
can you believe we're finally gonna meeet
From: Percy [2:12 AM]
i'll still pissed about you going to boston tbh
From: Annabeth [2:14 AM]
percy it's 2 am
From: Percy [2:14 AM]
not here it isn't
From: Percy [2:14 AM]
From: Percy [2:15 AM]
From: Percy [2:15 AM]
From: Percy [2:15 AM]
you're picking me up right
From: Percy [2:15 AM]
From: Annabeth [2:16 AM]
yeah but why
From: Percy [2:17 AM]
I wanna show you something
From: Percy [2:17 AM]
I may be totally wrong about this but if i'm not I think it'll be really cool and you'll be really happy
From: Percy [2:18 AM]
SO YOU'RE PICKING ME UP RIGHT
From: Annabeth [2:19 AM]
look I won't be able to if you doN'T LET ME SLEEP GODDAMN
From: Percy [2:21 AM]
From: Percy [2:22 AM]
okay but really i'm so excited I can't even
From: Percy [2:22 AM]
see ya soon
From: Annabeth [2:25 AM]
Annabeth's heart pounds the entire drive to the airport.
She still feels a little guilty that she's the only one making the trip to pick Percy up, but he'd asked her to come — alone — pretty freaking persistently, and she hadn't put up much of a fight. Almost all night, Annabeth had hidden her smile in her pillow that night, heart pounding with the simplest happiness.
They've kept in touch. He's a timezone away, which is new for them both and a little scary, but they still call each other up on most nights and sometimes they Skype, too. He tells her about his new coach — his team is called the Trojans, which she thinks is very cool — and she tells him about her roommates, who are every bit the architecture junkie she is. When they both have the time, they watch movies together, pressing the play button at the same time and laughing at how they can hear the dialogues over the phone.
Vaguely, she wonders what he'd wanted to tell her. Or show her, whatever. Must've been important if he insisted so much on her coming alone and for this revelation to happen in person only. Because it's been a while. They haven't met in person in close to a year: Annabeth had had to spend Christmas break with her extended family over in Boston, so she hadn't had a chance to meet him then. The very idea of him being so close, so in reach, makes her breaths quicken and her feet tap against the brakes in impatience, and she finds herself rubbing a finger over her red string. It's been tingling a lot lately, ever since Percy left. She wonders what that's all about.
Sweating in the high noon sun, she blinks yellow light out of her eyes and makes her way inside the airport building; the fanning herself as she's jostled around by a horde of waiting people. As a kind of joke, she's written SEAWEED BRAIN on a little placard, and she holds it up when she sees the first of the arrived passengers head toward the waiting crowd from baggage claim.
She moves out of the way as a shorter woman darts forward to greet her husband; her daughter trips and bumps again Annabeth's legs, and once Annabeth regains her footing and makes sure the little girl is okay, she looks up to see a wild-haired figure standing up ahead between the heads of the crowd, and suddenly she can't breathe. Her red string is prickling harder than ever.
Placard in hand, she runs, tearing through the crowd of people like a cannon blast. Her knees almost buckle from her frantic dash, making her muscles ache, but she doesn't stop, heart pounding in time with her feet slamming into the ground.
Percy sees her, too, and starts running along the boardwalk, dodging other passengers, and his arms are spread wide open as he sheds his luggage like dead skin, teeth bared in a grin, and collides with Annabeth at a breakneck pace, arms coiling around her back.
They crash into each other hard: so hard that her bones rattle in her body, but her chest is filling her up with light as he breathes her name and buries his face in her shoulder. Already she feels like she's been born again; her muscles feel strained from her sprint but she can't move away, can't even think. They stay glued together in the middle of the aisle, grabbing needy fistfuls of each other so tight it might leave a bruise, but Annabeth loves the feeling. Every sense not directly related to him fades into the background; Percy's touch aches when it passes over her skin, but not as much as it had hurt to be away from him.
Finally, she takes a step back to look at him, and he does the same, gazing at her with some kind of innate fondness that she does not have time to place, because she's only just realized she's in tears, and she quickly looks away, wiping her eyes and sniffing.
He meets her eyes, stepping closer, taking her hand, and Annabeth's breath catches in her throat as their foreheads touch. Percy's eyes have fluttered shut, so she looks at him curiously, at his long, dark lashes, at his face, heavy with color. His breath is cool on her neck; his whole body quivers as he lifts their hands up together between them. His eyes open again as he unravels his fingers from between hers — she barely has any time to feel disappointment before he links their pinkies together in a silent promise, and Annabeth stares at their fingers, feeling a new wave of emotion rising to the surface. She uses her free hand to cover her mouth in a lousy attempt to hide the enormous sob that bursts free, but her entire body is filling up with light, and even when she presses her fingers over her lips, her grin can't be willed away.
And Percy gazes, too, at their linked fingers, at the single red string that, for so long, had been only hers, and smiles.